In the latest of our “how safe is it to visit…” series, we shed light on the risks involved when travelling to Tunisia.
Tunisia situation report
The security environment in recent years has largely been shaped by a series of Islamist militant attacks in 2015, including the attack at a beach resort in Port El Kantaoui, an attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and an attack on a bus carrying Tunisian presidential guards which exploded, killing 12, on a principal road in Tunis. Following these, numerous governments advised against non-essential travel to Tunis, advice which has since been lifted owing to an improving security environment.
While the security forces have increased their capabilities in preventing militant attacks, two suicide attacks on 27th June, one close to the French embassy and one close to a National Guard base, indicate that Islamist militant cells still operate throughout the country and have intent to strike again.
We assess Tunisia, including TUNIS, to be a MODERATE risk rated country (the third highest on a five tier scale). This risk is increased to HIGH in areas 30 miles (48km) from the Libyan border, such as Medenine and Tataouine provinces and the militarised zone south El Borma. Security risks are also increased to HIGH in Kasserine, El Kef and Jendouba governorates.
While the risk of terrorism in other areas of Tunisia is considered HIGH, the risk in Tunis is only considered to be MODERATE.
The authorities implemented a 30-day state of emergency in July 2015 which remains in place until today and has been extended numerous times.
The main source of the threat in Tunis, and across Tunisia, continues to be from the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Up to 4,000 Tunisian citizens are thought to still be fighting with the group in Libya, Iraq and Syria, and there are widespread concerns about the impact of their return. Concerns remain over Tunisia’s somewhat porous borders with Algeria and, to an extent, Libya, which could allow militant infiltration. The government has constructed a 100-mile (60km) wall along the Libyan border, along with hardening manpower deployments, in an attempt to prevent the return of those who have been fighting in Libya.
Militants linked to IS have demonstrated both the intent and capability to carry out attacks in the country, including Tunis. It is likely that plots in the city will remain focussed on ‘soft’ target locations and areas densely populated by foreign nationals in an attempt to reinforce IS’s core ideology, along with deterring foreign investment and impacting the tourism sector. This includes hotels, shopping centres and markets.
Terrorist attacks on major urban centres have been constrained under the state of emergency. There have been improvements to intelligence gathering and the security apparatus which were significantly disrupted during the Arab Spring and the removal of long-term President Zine El Abdine in 2011. Security has also been reinforced by enhancements in cross-border cooperation with Algeria. In July 2018, officials agreed on a new security coordination plan that includes a joint military and security operations room. Tunisian troops have also received training from the US, France and the UK, focusing on cargo screening, detecting online extremist content and responding to bomb threats. The increase in tourism is indicative of the improving security situation; over six million people visited in the first eight months of 2018 and governments, including the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, have lifted travel restrictions that have been in place since 2015.
The most frequent types of crime are petty and opportunistic incidents, notably pickpocketing and bag-snatching. These incidents are often targeted at foreign nationals and business travellers due to their perceived wealth. Moreover, there have been increasing reports of thieves, often lone men, targeting and following foreign female travellers in order to pickpocket them. The predominant risk of being pickpocketed, or a victim of another petty crime, is around crowded locations and areas frequented by tourists.
While rates of crime have gradually increased countrywide since the Arab Spring, Tunis has been less affected than other locations in the country. Incidents of more serious and violent crime are less common. There remains a credible risk of violent criminality, although criminals in urban areas are unlikely to be armed with firearms. Home invasion rates are also higher in areas known to be inhabited by expatriates. Most of these incidents occur during the day, given that burglars are likely to prefer to target empty houses.
Protests are common and sometimes escalate into violence. Demonstrations are often sparked by political, social and economic issues, and clashes tend to occur when the police attempt to control the crowds. There is a higher risk of violence during protests held in lower income areas.
Protests in Tunisia can also quickly gather significant momentum, and spread countrywide. For the past two years protests have been mostly low-level. However in January 2018, at least one person died and more than 200 people were arrested in two nights of widespread and violent protests across Tunisia, prompted by anger over steep price rises resulting from austerity measures. The protests broke out after activists and politicians denounced increases in VAT and the introduction of social contributions. Clashes occurred in most cities, including Tunis. Prior to that, in January 2016, the Tunisian government imposed a countrywide overnight curfew after violence and protests over unemployment spread across the country, including in Tunis. The demonstration originated in the northern town of Kasserine, and was sparked by the death of a youth who was protesting being denied a government job. Looting and vandalism were also reported during the week-long unrest and over 90 people were wounded.
Healix advice to travellers visiting Tunisia
- Where possible, avoid unnecessary time spent at known flashpoints such as government buildings and university campuses. Do not stop to watch disturbances as this could threaten your personal safety. In the event of unrest, business travellers are not likely to be at direct risk, but should avoid large crowds and gatherings as a security precaution.
- Be aware that gatherings often occur spontaneously and deteriorate at short notice. If you encounter a crowd of protesters its best to vacate the area immediately and return to secure office buildings or accommodation until the situation is contained.
- If you are caught outside in the middle of a riot or unrest, do not appear to take sides or attempt to photograph or film events, move at right angles out of the crowd and find the nearest building to seek refuge. Avoid drawing attention to yourself. Keep your head down and avoid confrontation. Walk rather than run to avoid attracting attention. If you are caught in the middle of a riot or unrest while in a vehicle: remain inside your vehicle unless it has become the focus of the protest, and avoid major roads and anticipate roadblocks.
- Become familiar with local customs. This includes dressing conservatively and refraining from openly eating or drinking during the month of Ramadan. LGBT travellers should avoid all public displays of affection, and refrain from engaging in public conversations about sexuality or LGBT issues. Strictly adhere to these customs while in country.
- Female travellers should refrain from solo pedestrian travel at all times. This will likely attract attention, especially if the traveller is of visibly foreign appearance. This also increases the risk of general harassment, as well as being impacted by more serious forms of criminality
- Exercise higher levels of vigilance than you would normally owing to the threat posed by militancy. Be alert to suspicious packages and behaviour, and report any such activity to a security guard, member of staff or a police officer. If you ever feel uncomfortable about a situation you should vacate the area as a precautionary measure.
- Reduce risk exposure. Travel to potential target locations – including hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls, tourist attractions, transport hubs, religious institutions, government offices, military facilities, Western embassies, foreign commercial interests and public transport – can continue but you should minimise time spent in the foyer, entrance or other easily accessible areas, as these typically experience high volumes of casualties during attacks. When you enter a shopping centre or public building, identify the nearest emergency exit and minimise time in the most accessible part of the building.
How Healix can help employers with their Duty of Care
Employers should firstly ensure that they understand all the risks involved with operating in Tunisia. These will involve not just security risks, but also operational risks (including associated business risks), political risks and travel risks. Risks are dependent upon regions being visited, so employers are advised to obtain a bespoke risk assessment, specific to the regions, the time of year, and the risk profile of the employees involved.
Secondly, employers should consider using trusted emergency assistance companies, like Healix, that make use of local security staff, to provide close protection, driving, and interpretation, to smooth the passage of any employees in country, specifically in higher risk areas.
Thirdly, employers should have in place a crisis management or emergency evacuation plan in case the situation deteriorates. This can be done via insurance companies, or directly via global emergency assistance companies, and should include medical evacuation and the particular areas being accessed.
Employees should ask that their employers fully understand the environment in Tunisia and all the associated risks.
The Tunisian healthcare system is one of the most developed in Africa, with a level of quality equivalent to that of many southern European countries. There is a good record of national immunisation programmes and one of the lowest infant mortalities in Africa. In the public sector, Tunisians have near universal access to basic health care, although access to specialist care in rural areas is more limited. Most of Tunisia’s top specialists in the public sector work at the country’s universities located in major cities, and also in the private sector. However, there remain significant disparities between rural and urban areas and between public and private sectors. Emergency medical treatment in Tunisia is not readily available outside the main urban centres, and you may have to be taken to a major city for medical treatment. The telephone number for Ambulance / emergency medical services is 190 throughout the country. Most expats living in Tunisia prefer to use private healthcare facilities, which are of an excellent standard, especially in Tunis and Sfax. Tunisian doctors are competent and are generally fluent in French.
Anyone travelling to Tunisia should ensure that all national immunisation schedules are up to date, including tetanus and MMR – as with many countries in the world, there is a large measles outbreak in Tunisia with over 3,000 suspected cases and 30 deaths in the first four months of 2019. It is important for all travellers to check that they are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had two doses of the MMR vaccine. All travellers should be aware of safe water 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 visit a health professional and discuss the option of Hepatitis A vaccine – this is well tolerated and affords long-lasting protection.
Those who may be at increased risk of an infectious disease due to their work, lifestyle choice, or certain underlying health problems should check with their primary care practitioner (PCP) if they need additional recommended vaccines for: Hepatitis B if there is any risk of coming into contact with blood or body fluids since there is an intermediate / high prevalence of Hep B infection in the local population; rabies is a significant risk in Tunisia following contact through broken skin or mucous membranes with saliva of infected animals, and again vaccination is available.
There is no risk of malaria or yellow fever in Tunisia. However, there is the risk from insect or tick-borne diseases such as West Nile virus, Rift Valley fever and Leishmaniasis. West Nile Virus (WNV) is endemic in Tunisia and is primarily transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes. In the last 20 years there have been three major upsurges of cases, and in 2018 there was a fourth, with nearly 400 cases and two related deaths. There is also a risk of dengue fever in Egypt – this is a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes which predominantly feed between dawn and dusk. It causes a flu-like illness, which can occasionally develop into a more serious life-threatening form of the disease. All travellers should avoid insect and tick bites day and night. There are no vaccinations (or medications) to prevent these diseases.
If you’re bringing prescription medicines into Tunisia, carry the prescription and preferably a note from your PCP confirming that the medication has been prescribed for an existing condition. If you have any specific concerns about taking certain types of medication with you into Tunisia, contact your local Tunisian Embassy. All travellers should always ensure they have appropriate travel health insurance with up-to-date declarations.
FIND OUT MORE
Healix International can deploy at short notice to conduct Project Risk Assessments, Site Security Audits, Evacuation Planning, Emergency Response Planning, Threat and Risk Assessments and Training, as well as offer Embedded Security Managers upon request (see Security Consultancy & Bespoke Services). If you are interested in commissioning these services, or would like to request a capability statement for your country of operations, please email us at GSOC@healix.com.