Ben Abboudi, Global Threat Analyst for the MENA region at Healix International, comments on the risks involved when visiting Turkey amidst growing political tensions owing to the upcoming snap elections.
We consider Turkey to be a MODERATE risk country overall, the third level on a five tier scale. Within Turkey, there are different sub regions that pose different risks to travellers.
Civil unrest is primarily an incidental risk to travellers and large-scale demonstrations often take place in major urban centres. Unauthorised protests are often forcibly dispersed by the security forces; in May 2017 protests took place countrywide, with the police using tear gas on demonstrators in Taksim Square in Istanbul. Turkey will hold snap presidential and parliamentary elections on 24th June, which were initially scheduled to be held in November 2019. This has increased political tensions, with opposition figures accusing President Erdogan of authoritarianism. Further large-scale rallies, both in opposition and in support of Erdogan are to be expected.
Opportunistic crime is the main threat posed to foreign travellers. Pickpocketing remains a risk, particularly in high-density tourist areas – such as Taksim square in Istanbul. Sexual harassment is an issue, and foreign women – particularly when walking alone – could be subjected to catcalls and verbal harassment. The risk of crime is generally higher after dark, in unlit and backstreet areas, and in neighbourhoods not usually frequented by tourists.
There have been no significant terrorist attacks in Istanbul since the attack in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve of 2016/17 that resulted in 39 people being killed. The upcoming elections could prompt terrorist groups to try and increase their operational tempo. Groups have been known to attack both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ targets; ‘hard’ targets relate to government, airports and security forces infrastructure, while ‘soft’ targets are locations that are relatively unprotected, such as markets, theatres, shopping malls, hotels, public squares and entertainment venues. These were conducted by two distinct threat actors: Kurdish militants (which targeted security personnel and government offices) and Islamic State (which targeted civilians). However, major security deployments by the Turkish law enforcement, military and intelligence services have successfully mitigated this threat. This was achieved by tightening border security and by a dramatic escalation in the number of counter-terrorism operations taking place in-country.
Although it not being a common occurrence, foreign travellers are at risk of detention and unwanted harassment by the security forces should they publically criticise the government. Since a failed coup in 2016, the government has implemented a ‘state of emergency’ that has allowed the security forces to arrest thousands of academics, military personnel, civil servants, journalists and judges who are accused of holding anti-government positions. The government has also taken a strong stance against Donald Trump’s decision to relocate America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; this potentially increases the risks to US nationals. Risks can be largely mitigated by not engaging in public discussions on the political situation and generally exercising a low profile. Travellers should also be mindful about what they read and post on social media as certain political ‘trigger words’ are liable to be picked up by the security services.
The advice below is not exhaustive but may significantly reduce the likelihood and potential impact of a security incident.
- Consider minimising movement on the 24th June as unauthorised rallies are likely to be forcibly dispersed.
- Avoid travelling alone during night time hours, particularly outside urban centres.
- Where practical, travellers should minimise time spent in crowds in higher-risk areas. This includes government buildings, public squares and symbolic foreign interests such as diplomatic missions.
- Public transport is largely safe to use for short journeys but it is advisable to use a trusted taxi service for longer distances. Be careful to heed any warnings issued by governments; intelligence often points to planned attacks on public transport.
- Anticipate a significantly heightened security presence around major urban centres and public squares.
- Avoid all protests and rallies as a basic security precaution.
- Carry a form of identification at all times to expedite dealings with the security forces.
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