Regional Security Coordinator (APAC)
Dr Finn Morgan
In the latest of our ‘how safe is it to visit…’ series, we shed light on the risks involved when travelling to Bangladesh.
Bangladesh situation report
Overall, Bangladesh is assessed by Healix to be a MODERATE security risk country due to several security-related factors. Bangladesh is located in South Asia, sharing most of its land border with India to the west, north and east, and a short section of its south-east border with Myanmar. The security environment is mostly shaped by crime, unrest and the risk posed by natural disasters. Foreign nationals are unlikely to be specifically targeted by most threat actors, although petty criminals and terrorists have expressed intent to do so.
Despite the demonstrated intent of terrorist actors to carry out attacks in Bangladesh, their capability to do so has been reduced in recent years, making the risk of terrorism MODERATE. The number of terrorist attacks has declined in the last two years due to the efforts from local security forces who have carried out counter-terror raids within Dhaka, Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong city, underscoring the latent threat posed by terrorist actors. Dhaka remains the main target location for terrorist actors; however, Cox’s Bazar is a potential target for perpetrators owing to the recent influx in the number of international NGOs.
The Islamic State (IS) militant group has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the country, sparking fears that the group was gaining traction within Bangladesh. Most recently this included an IED attack against a police checkpoint in Chittagong on 28th February, which wounded two police officers and a civilian. IS are also likely to target NGOs that promote reproductive health, female empowerment and human rights. Additionally, groups linked to al-Qaeda, such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), are becoming more active. Online activists, including secular bloggers and two members of the LGBT community, were killed in targeted attacks in June 2018.
Bangladesh has a restive population who regularly utilise collective action to support or oppose political developments, or vent socioeconomic grievances, making the risk of unrest HIGH. Demonstrations are typically centred on perceived socio-political grievances such as the ongoing Rohingya situation as well as issues relating to the domestic political agenda. The Rohingya Refugee crisis is a major issue for Bangladesh, where 1.1 million refugees are settled at the moment. This ethnic minority has been historically persecuted and is now stateless since Myanmar has refused to grant their citizenship.
Election-related unrest is common throughout Bangladesh, particularly concerning contentious local or national elections. Rallies and protests are common, as well as clashes between the security forces, protesters and counter-protesters which can be fatal.
There are frequent reports of both petty and serious crimes occurring countrywide, making the risk level HIGH. Foreign nationals are at risk of being impacted by petty criminality, and to a lesser extent, violent crime. Opportunistic criminals operate mostly across larger urban areas such as Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet and Cox’s Bazar, with snatching incidents particularly common. These are often perpetrated by criminals on mopeds or three-wheeled motorised rickshaws seeking to target pedestrians. This risk is heightened after dark, as criminals seek to operate undetected in poorly-lit areas.
There are multiple organised criminal entities operating in Bangladesh that have demonstrated intent and capability to carry out fatal attacks without fear of reprisal. Drug trafficking gangs operate mostly throughout the Cox’s Bazar area. Gun battles have occurred between the local security forces and drug traffickers, posing an incidental risk to foreign nationals located in the vicinity of such incidents. Carjacking is increasingly common in Dhaka and Chittagong.
Violent crimes such as armed robbery, assault, sexual assault and targeted killings are more likely to impact locals than foreign nationals; however, some incidents involving foreign nationals have been recorded. Violent crime is generally targeted, with the victim often known to the perpetrator. Dhaka police have highlighted the increasing number of criminal gangs operating in the city and reminded the public to be aware of potential threats.
The risk of kidnap is MODERATE. While kidnap does occur occasionally in Bangladesh, it rarely occurs against foreign nationals. The majority of these are kidnap-for-ransom and involve targeting business owners and their relatives.
Bangladesh is situated in one of the world’s most seismically vulnerable regions, making the risk posed by natural disasters HIGH. The area faces a number of natural disaster risks, such as cyclones, monsoons and heat waves.
Bangladesh lies at the junction of the Indian, Eurasian and Burma tectonic plates, resulting in a region with high seismicity. There is also a latent risk posed by tsunamis in the event of a major undersea earthquake.
Societal and cultural risks
The societal and cultural risks in Bangladesh are assessed at MODERATE. Bangladesh is an Islamic country, and its societal norms are generally conservative. Within larger urban centres such as Dhaka, more modern attitudes are increasingly commonplace; however, in rural areas traditional notions regarding dressing and the role of women, for example, are likely to be more common.
Self-driving in Bangladesh is strictly inadvisable. Road conditions are generally poor, especially off the main highways. Many roads are unpaved and therefore susceptible to flooding during the monsoon season. Potholes and loose road debris are commonplace. Roads are often poorly lit and the road traffic accident rate tends to increase during hours of darkness. Local vehicle maintenance is often inadequate, with missing seatbelts and wing mirrors a common occurrence. Excessive speeding and dangerous overtaking are frequent habits among local drivers, posing a risk to other drivers on the road. Refrain from using public transport in Bangladesh. Petty crime is prevalent across public transportation, driving standards are poor and most vehicles lack regular maintenance.
- Use accredited providers for ground moves. Self-driving is not advised for travellers in Bangladesh. Although hotel-booked taxis may be adequate for short intra-city journeys, an accredited driver with a well-conditioned 4×4 vehicle is preferable for longer-distance journeys to rural parts of the country. Ensure that vehicles are in good working order and that they are adequately stocked with emergency supplies such as spare fuel, food and water, a first aid kit, and basic maintenance equipment. Be aware of the limitations of professional breakdown recovery services and the poor state of roads, especially during monsoon season.
- Seek itinerary specific advice before travelling, especially if travelling outside of the standard business areas in Dhaka. Sharing a copy of your trip details with your assistance provider will allow them to offer you personalised security advice, based on numerous factors such as your profile, destination and dates of travel. They will be able to let you know about upcoming events such as planned protests or anniversaries that could trigger unrest. Your security provider should also be able to advise you of the comparatively safer areas of the locations you are visiting to assist you when making accommodation plans since risk environments may vary among different regions in Bangladesh. Be aware that you should refrain from sharing details of your itinerary with strangers.
- Select an accredited accommodation with adequate security measures. Ensure that you choose a room close to an emergency exit, preferably between the third and fifth floors so that the room will not be accessible via windows but is low down enough that a quick exit can be made in the event of a fire. Elevators should have access controls to restrict the ability of members of the public to access guest areas and there should be 24/7 security conducting baggage checks at all points of entry. Beware of the limitations of the typically poorly trained security guard vendors and ineffective baggage scanning equipment, which are routine across the country.
How Healix can help employers with their duty of care
Employers are advised to conduct itinerary and profile-specific risk assessments before the deployment of employees to Bangladesh. The US State Department and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) continue to maintain the second-highest tier of travel advisory levels for Bangladesh, advising nationals to reconsider travel or avoid non-essential travel countrywide, while the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) advises against all but essential travel to the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Corporate travel insurance policies are known to contain exclusions that negate or void benefits should the relevant authorities recommend against travel to a certain country. Employers should monitor security developments and stay updated for possible changes to embassy travel advisory levels.
Employees should be aware of Bangladesh’s deteriorating security risk trend, especially for parts of the country including Dhaka, the south-east and the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Global travel security providers, like Healix, can support business travellers as well as NGO workers in-country with dedicated intelligence and operational teams that monitor on-the-ground developments and provide in-situ logistical support and protective teams. Healix provides many bespoke consultancy services, including written assessment and personal security and destination awareness training should employees be required to travel to higher risk areas in Bangladesh.
Specific information and recommendations for aid workers and NGOs in Bangladesh
At the moment, 2,554 NGOs, of which 233 are foreign, are operating in Bangladesh. Since 2017 more than 1.2 million Rohingya have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. This mostly Muslim minority ethnic group has been persecuted historically in Myanmar, and the government continues to refuse to recognise them as citizens. The majority of the Rohingya population in Bangladesh live in refugee camps along the Teknaf-Cox’s Bazar highway, parallel to the border between both countries. The Bangladeshi authorities regulate access to the camps where the refugees are accommodated, and there have been several incidents where aid workers working on incorrect visas have been denied entry and temporarily detained.
The operational risk for NGOs is HIGH. With the influx of the Rohingya, Bangladesh is significantly influenced by the outcomes of diplomacy and international agreements that relate directly to the ethnic group – all of which can have impacts on NGO’s personnel, operations and assets. Moreover, there has been a significant increase in the number of vendors operating in Cox’s Bazar since the 2017 crisis began, and as such there have been recurrent attempts by local businesses to intimidate procurement departments into assigning contracts.
Small-scale protests have also been organised by local groups opposed to the influx of refugees; one such group is the Anti-Rohingya Resistance Committee. These events underscore the underlying social tensions between opposing communities and highlights the potential for communal violence to occur between the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi host community. If travellers are planning to visit these camp areas they should ensure that they liaise with local contacts to ascertain whether protests are occurring and defer travel to affected areas.
There is also significant violence within the camps located in Cox’s Bazar. Illicit arms trafficking has also been reported within the camps. The risk of sexual assault targeting female aid workers is significantly increased after dark, owing to poor lighting; the majority of incidents reported involve local women, but numerous instances of verbal harassment or stalking of female foreigners have been reported too. The incidence of crime in and around the Rohingya camps tends to increase during hours of darkness, as humanitarian personnel are made to leave the camps, and the local security presence is minimal.
Some kidnapping syndicates have been known to operate in the area, typically targeting the Rohingya community or NGO personnel located in the camps. There have been previous reports that some NGO workers have been ‘express kidnapped’, where the individual is held for a short time and forced to withdraw money from an ATM or bank, or via their family members, before being released unharmed.
Many camps are located in the proximity of the tectonic plates’ junction, and are therefore highly susceptible to the impact of an earthquake. These camps are typically built on loose sand and soil sediment, which increases the impact of tremors during an earthquake. During the monsoon season flooding is common, particularly within Rohingya camps which tend to be situated along riverbanks.
More conservative interpretations of Islam are present at the camp level and unaccompanied interactions between male foreigners and Rohingya women, for example, are likely to be considered unacceptable. Female travellers of visibly foreign appearance may draw verbal harassment from locals, though this typically does not escalate into physical harassment if travelling during daylight hours.
Healthcare in Bangladesh
Government-run hospitals in Bangladesh are overcrowded and grossly under resourced. They provide very poor quality care. In the main population centres, there are some private hospitals which vary in their size and quality. The leading private hospitals provide much better hygiene, easier access to doctors, more modern equipment and a higher standard of ward accommodation. However, even at these hospitals quality of care is still very patchy and likely to fall significantly below international standards.
In general, any significant medical problems in expatriate personnel would require evacuation out of country. Bangkok is the key referral destination for expatriates requiring evacuation to a centre of medical excellence. Delhi is also a good destination for air ambulance evacuations but can only be used if the patient already has a valid Indian visa.
Ensure vaccinations are up-to-date and take precautions against mosquito-borne diseases
It is important that anyone travelling to Bangladesh should ensure that all routine childhood vaccinations are up-to-date. Most travellers will require vaccination against hepatitis A, tetanus and typhoid. Some travellers will additionally require vaccination against rabies, Japanese encephalitis, cholera and hepatitis B. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the diseases affecting the country and should not substitute for a consultation with a trained travel medicine professional.
Most areas of Bangladesh have only a low risk of malaria. However visitors to the Chittagong Hill Tracts have a higher risk and should take anti-malarial prophylaxis. Other mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever occur all year round so all travellers should take care to avoid mosquito bites.
There has been a significant increase in the number of cases of dengue fever across Bangladesh, including in Dhaka, as has been the case in many countries in the APAC region in recent times. The most effective form of prevention is to avoid mosquito bites such as by using regular insect repellent, wearing long-sleeves and trousers, sleeping in air-conditioned rooms and using bed-nets.
Air pollution in Bangladesh
Severe air pollution is a major hazard to public health, especially during the winter months. Dhaka often experiences extremely high levels of pollution. Children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing medical conditions may be especially affected. On severely polluted days it is advisable to minimise the amount of time spent outside; residents should also consider installing air purifiers to improve the quality of the air in their homes and workplaces. If you have a respiratory or cardiac condition this is even more important. From an organisational point of view, it is important to pre-screen all travellers with pre-existing medical conditions that may be exacerbated by travel to heavily polluted cities. The benefit of this is to either anticipate problems that may be faced and, for example, formulate an action plan, or alternatively to re-consider whether this is an appropriate destination for the traveller.
All travellers should practise safe water consumption and food hygiene to avoid such illnesses as typhoid, cholera and traveller’s diarrhoea – only drink bottled or boiled water and eat well-cooked food. Visitors should see a health professional and discuss the option of hepatitis A vaccine – this is well tolerated and affords long-lasting protection.
Carry your prescriptions with you
If you’re bringing prescription medicines into Bangladesh, carry the prescription and preferably a note from your doctor confirming that the medication has been prescribed for an existing condition – ensure you have enough medication to cover your trip and any contingencies. Most commonly used medicines are available but many items may be impossible to source in Bangladesh. All travellers should always ensure they have appropriate travel health insurance with up-to-date declarations.
Please note that due to the evolving novel coronavirus pandemic, recommendations for / safety of travel are subject to change during this time. The guidance above does not take into consideration developments from a medical perspective in relation to COVID-19 and we are not able to update the changes in-country / airline restrictions in this communication. For our latest COVID-19 advice to employers and travellers, please reference our latest advisory.