How to get yourself out of a country when things go south.

When travelling to higher-risk locations, you may find yourself in a situation where levels of risk are escalating beyond levels you believe are acceptable. There may have been a coup d’état or an escalation in protest activity. Or militia attacks could increase, with an increased risk to foreigners (people that look like you). Alternatively, there could have been a major natural disaster.

Regardless of the cause, based on your assessment of the threats and risks, you’ve made the assessment that it’s no longer safe for you to remain in the country. In such cases, you’ll have two options: hunker down and ride things out or immediately leave the country.

This article will cover the basic details of how you might get out of the country, focusing on air, land and sea evacuation options.

I’ll explain how to get out of the country shortly. Before you start moving, however, you’ll need to consider your personal safety.

Focus on your immediate safety first

Before you start working out how you’re going to get out of the country, your first priority is to make sure you’re safe where you are now.

First, evaluate where you’re staying. If your accommodation is close to protest areas, or could be cut off from routes to the airport or land border crossings, you’ll need to move to a different location.

Second, consider your movements. In some situations, it may not be safe for you to be on the streets. You may need to stay indoors. In other situations, you may need to avoid certain parts of town or avoid being outside after a certain time. Be conservative.

If movement on the streets is possible, be discreet and avoid trouble. Keep away from military, police or militia checkpoints. Limit your exposure by only being outside for essential tasks.

In addition to your personal safety, be conservative with your health and wellbeing. You don’t want to get sick and either stuck in a hotel room alone or hospitalised. Watch what you eat and drink.

Stay off social media to avoid telegraphing your location and plans. Limit the information you share with local contacts regarding your intentions. Above all, keep a low profile.

Keep in touch with family and colleagues. Let them know where you’re staying and what your intentions are.

Carry essential items with you at all times, including your passport, phone, credit cards and cash. If a window of opportunity arises to make a quick dash to an airport or a border crossing, you need to be ready.

A small town to the east of Aleppo, Syria. 2020.

Be prepared for a long wait

If the situation on the streets is getting out of control, and it’s not safe for you to be outside, you may end up stuck inside your accommodation. Ensure you’re prepared for a long wait. Think about how you’ll arrange meals, wash your clothes and top up your SIM cards. If you take medication, make sure you have enough on hand to last for a few weeks.

Once you think the time is right to leave, you’ll have three basic evacuation options available to you — air, land and sea. The following sections will work through the essential considerations for each option.

Getting out by air

Movement by air is the fastest and most convenient evacuation option. If outbound scheduled flights are still available, get yourself to the airport and on a flight. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you travel to, so long as it’s a secure location and you can get yourself out of the country.

If your current location doesn’t have an international airport, you may need to get yourself to a major city first and fly out from there.

If there are no scheduled flights, you can consider booking a charter flight. You can charter an aircraft from a charter operator or a broker. Chartered flights are expensive. It may be less expensive if you’re able to charter an aircraft from an operator at the airport you plan to depart from. Another option is to coordinate with a group of people who want to leave and share the costs. You’ll need to pay the full cost of the charter up front. Cash will speed up the process.

If you’re unable to get out by air, an overland evacuation by vehicle is your next best option.

Getting out by vehicle

To be able to conduct a safe evacuation by vehicle, you’ll need a secure destination, a secure route to that destination, and a suitable vehicle and driver. Your destination will either be a safer location in the same country or a secure location in an adjacent country.

In a major crisis, it’s common for key routes to be impassable. It’s good practice to check routes in advance to make sure they’re secure and passable. If there are risks from ambushes, improvised explosive devices or land mines, you’ll need to carefully evaluate the option of evacuating by road.

When selecting a vehicle, use a low profile vehicle that blends in with traffic. Most of your security will come from obscurity. If the threat is more serious, and there’s a risk from armed groups, it may be appropriate to use a B6 or B7 armoured vehicle with a security driver and protective security detail.

Low profile vehicles in Tripoli, Lebanon. 2019.

Whenever possible, clear routes before using them by sending a local vehicle to scout the route in advance of your own vehicle. Select the time of travel so that you can avoid heavy traffic while also blend in with the flow of local traffic. You don’t want to be the only car on the road.

If you’re crossing a border into a neighbouring country, remember that border checkpoints can be unpredictable, particularly during times of crisis. Whenever possible, verify border checkpoints are open and passable before leaving the relative safety of your accommodation. When planning your departure time, ensure you provision ample time for traffic delays en route to the border and queues at the border itself.

Have sufficient cash on hand in case you need to coerce officials at road checkpoints or at the border.

Getting out by boat

If it’s not possible to leave by air or land, and you’re in a country with a coastline, your last option for evacuation is to leave by boat.

Good luck with that.

Before you start looking for a super yacht, think about where you plan to go. You’ll need a safe destination within range of the vessels likely to be available to you. Once you’ve identified a destination, you’ll need to find a suitable vessel that can get you there safely. Good start points are commercial marinas and offshore fishing boats. Once you’ve found a vessel, you’ll need to track down the owner or operator of that vessel and convince them to take you out of the country. That process may take more time than you have available to you.

Evacuations by sea are also subject to a host of different risks, and are highly susceptible to weather. Poor weather may leave you stuck in place.

One option where an evacuation by sea can be useful is to move along a coastline within the same country. For example, you could use a boat to move from one coastal town to another. This approach could help you avoid a dangerous route and could help to get you closer to an airport or land border crossing.

Staying in place

In some cases, your evacuation plans may be overwhelmed by the situation. As the situation escalates, airspace may be closed, the airport may shut down or roads may become impassable. In such situations, you’ll need to be prepared to remain in place.

If you’re stuck, you’ll need to adjust your plans. You’ll need a safe place to stay that’s out of harm’s way. Of course, you’ll also need to keep a low profile. Keeping a low profile may require you to stay indoors.

Have contingency plans in place for situations where the mains power goes down, the water supply is cut or the cellular network is disrupted. Here’s a few additional actions you can take to prepare for a long wait:

  • Ensure you have access to a supply of food and water. Either stockpile provisions in advance or make arrangements with trusted local contacts to deliver them to you.
  • Have a large capacity power bank. Consider using solar panels; however, be aware that they’re not particularly effective in an urban environment.
  • Have a satellite phone or satellite communicator. If using a satellite phone, ensure you pack an external antenna that you can mount outside a window. Satellite devices can be less effective in urban areas. If you have a choice where you stay, find a building with rooftop access.

Stay in touch with family and friends throughout the process. They’ll be worried, so keep in regular contact and keep them appraised of your plans.

A rooftop overlooking Aleppo, Syria. 2020.

Continue to monitor the situation through local media and through your local contact network. If you see an opportunity to get out, carefully evaluate the risks. If you believe you have a good shot at a clean and safe exit, take it.

Getting yourself out of a country can be easy if you move quickly. If you delay, or if the situation rapidly escalates, it can be significantly more difficult. Plan your exit carefully and don’t expose yourself to unacceptable levels of risk. Anticipate things not going to plan, and always have a fallback plan to remain on the ground.

If security evacuations are a topic that interests you, I’ve written more about security evacuations here on Medium:

Thanks for reading.

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

If you’re interested in learning more about security evacuations, I’ve published two volumes on the topic: The Security Evacuation Handbook Volume I: Fundamentals & Planning and The Security Evacuation Handbook Volume II: Decision-Making & Execution. Both volumes available here.

You may also be interested in some of our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.

Founder, Spartan9.