Sometimes in life someone gives you a nudge towards an idea to write an article. Often that idea is overtaken by real events and even tragedy. That was certainly the case when RTTP suggested to me I may wish to write a piece based on the Philippines military launching an offensive in an attempt to capture Islamic militants in the south of the country. These foreign militants were reported as assisting their Abu Sayyaf rebel allies in bomb making techniques. These terrorists are said to have links to Al Qaeda extremists and to originate from either Malaysia or Indonesia. The Abu Sayyaf rebel group is based in the remote regions of Sulu province and the nearby island of Basilan.
The Most Recent Kidnapping of Foreigners
The real event and tragedy occurred just a short time after this military offensive. On Monday September 21 2015 gunmen kidnapped two Canadian tourists, a Norwegian resort manager and a Filipino woman from a resort on the Island Garden of Samal. The island is noted for its natural beauty, white sand beaches and a thriving diving industry. It was believed that the gun-toting terrorists used a banca or pumpboat to access the resort and make good their escape with the hostages to the island of Basilan.
Samal is close to the city of Davao in Mindanao and only takes about 1 ½ hours to drive the 45 kilometer route. Davao is a major city in Mindanao and home to a substantial number of expats. Samal to Basilan would take about 13 hours in a car to cover the 750 kilometers distance. I have no experience of sailing but I do know it would take quite a long sea journey to reach Basilan in a small outrigger boat. The island of Mindanao has been the scene of many years of insurgency by various Islamic groups based in the south of that island. Hostage taking has long been a tactic of these terrorist groups in order to raise funds by demanding ransoms be paid in exchange for their prisoners.
These terrorists in the south of the country are believed to be still holding a number of hostages including a Dutch bird watcher who was abducted nearly 3 years ago. The hostages taken in the raid on the Samal resort include two Canadians, one of whom lived and worked in the Philippines as a mining consultant, the Filipina wife of one of the Canadians and the Norwegian manager of the Samal resort. A regional military spokesperson was reported as saying, “ It appeared the foreigners were the targets, they were not taken at random.”
Foreigners Ignore Travel Advisories
No one in their right mind could condone any form of terrorism and in particular this incident of hostage taking. However it seems strange that foreigners appear to blatantly ignore travel advisories warning against travel in this part of the Philippines. I accept that different foreign governments issue slightly differing advice. For example there is a contrast between the advisories issued by the US and the UK governments. The UK government has a long history of erring on the side of caution when wording its warnings. On this occasion it appears to have been completely justified.
UK Travel Warning
It states in the simplest terms:
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to south-west Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago because of on-going terrorist activity and clashes between the military and insurgent groups. The FCO advise against all but essential travel to the remainder of Mindanao for the same reasons…….
There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping ….
Around 133,665 British nationals visited the Philippines in 2014. Most visits are trouble-free.
You can read the full advisory by visiting the UK government website.
US Travel Warning
In contrast the US Department of State issued a more verbose warning.
Essentially it warns US citizens on the risks of travel in certain areas particularly the Sulu Archipelago, “certain regions and cities of the island of Mindanao and the southern Sulu Sea area.” It correctly identifies the risk reflecting the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers and warns against non-essential travel in the Sulu Archipelago. It goes on to warn about continuing to –
exercise extreme caution if traveling to certain regions and cities of the island of Mindanao. Separatist and terrorist groups continue to conduct bombings, kidnappings and attacks against civilians, political leaders, and Philippine security forces. In particular, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) remain active in the Cotabato City area, and in the Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat provinces, where the government maintains a state of emergency and a greater police presence. There have been no recent reported terrorist threats or incidents within the Davao City or Surigao city limits. There have been no reports of U.S. citizens in Mindanao targeted specifically for their nationality; however, general threats to U.S. citizens and other foreigners throughout Mindanao remain a concern.
Canadian Travel Warning
In light of the fact that two Canadians had been kidnapped I also checked the advisory issued by the Canadian government.
It had been updated owing to the Samal kidnapping and said this:
There is no nationwide advisory in effect for the Philippines. However, you should exercise a high degree of caution due to an ongoing terrorist threat to Westerners and Western interests.
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada advises against all travel to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (consisting of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao provinces), as well as to the Zamboanga Peninsula and the provinces of Sarangani, Lanao del Norte, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur (excluding urban areas of Davao City), Davao Occidental, Davao Oriental, Cotabato, South Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat, due to the serious threat of terrorist attacks and kidnapping. The Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance may be limited in this region.
It is a similar warning to that of the UK advisory but not as succinct and makes it clear that the urban areas of Davao City are an exception to the rule.
This is not a debate about the relative merits of the warnings from the US and UK governments. I am well aware of the fact that many of you reading this are American. You may be aware I am British. We have much in common and a shared history of standing together against the tyrants and the opponents of democracy. Our respective governments and brave military men and women are also in the vanguard of the struggle to contain and defeat Islamic fundamentalism and its associated terrorism.
However it has to be said that I do have a preference for the succinct wording of the UK warning as opposed to the somewhat verbose American advisory. It is extremely wordy and what is worse it is vague. It uses the phrase “certain regions and cities” and is not as specific as either the UK or Canadian versions. The use of the map by the UK government is to be applauded. It makes it ultra-clear where the two categories of advice apply.
Look at the map issued by the UK government posted above. The red denotes a real ‘no-go’ area. The mustard yellow says only for “essential travel.” In effect it really means ‘do not enter and if you must then at your own peril’!
The Philippines is Safe
I know that many of you living here in the Philippines will probably respond with a ‘he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ Fine – that’s your opinion and if you have lived safely in let’s say Davao City for many years of course I can see your point of view. But let us not forget Samal is only a short ride away from Davao City. It was the scene of a terrorist outrage only a few short days ago. Britain has quite a long history of suffering from terrorist attacks and the population has learned to be vigilant at all times. It may serve as good practice to be also vigilant at all times even if you feel totally safe in Davao City. Remember this – terrorists will strike where it is least expected. I wish the kidnapped foreigners all the good will in the world. I also wish that they had taken more notice of what the British government has been warning travelers about.
A final word to the potential retiree to the Philippines – this is a peaceful and wonderful country to live in. Of course it has its fair share of problems and personal safety issues. In this article I have highlighted the risks in Mindanao but it obviously does not reflect upon the Philippines as a whole. The people in the Philippines are noted for their charm, friendliness and hard work. I like many other expats have always felt both safe and welcome here. But I have no intention of putting my head in the lion’s mouth.
Jay Alexander says
Outstanding article; timely, informative, and convincing. I understand that one should avoid hot spots and use “due caution” when traveling/living anywhere. Please seriously consider expounding on what steps one should consider taking to increase their level of security. In other words, if there were a hundred expats in that area, what did they do/not do that made them less of a target? Maybe nothing? Likewise, I am a retired police officer. I had planned to carry a gun on/near my property and/or have firearm/s available. Although the response may be based more geographically, what can we “get away” with if, as I understand it, the law/s prohibit non-citizens from owning/carrying firearms? I had also planned to endear myself to the local law enforcement community professionally/personally in order to receive greater protection/intelligence and a faster response time. I had considered training dog/s for protection since that is my background. Lastly, I had planned to go as ‘native’ as possible by adopting the dialect and living a Filipino lifestyle in order to reduce attention to myself and seem ‘less attractive to terrorist/s and other opportunists. Have victims been living/traveling relatively low key, or did they make themselves standout? A personal response to my questions would be most appreciative, but in all truthfulness, having read your article thoroughly, I’d prefer a response as an article because I feel we can never be too safe!
Calvin Sparrow says
I completely and totally agree with you post. Always best to find out what others who live there are doing (if anything) to prevent problems for occurring to them.
I also agree it is a good idea to know local police as well
Stephen Bentley says
Jay, firstly I apologize for not answering you earlier as I think your comments are valid and worthy of attention.
I agree that this topic justifies a further article but that is not my choice. If I am asked, I will gladly write a further article and address your remarks.
Gary Mortlock says
Thank you Stephen, I am currently living in the Bicol region , so far i have had very little trouble, well only misunderstandings, normal stuff when your living in a different culture. I have lived in several places, China, UK , Australia Germany, but i have now decided to move here permanently.
I do believe the good outweighs the bad here, there is a general respect for elders and great community spirit.
I have a life long friend coming over to visit next week and he is nervous of the trip due to the recent kidnappings, we were going to travel down south , but now , will venture north to batangus etc.. so thank you for the advice most appreciated.
David Siemer says
Thanks for the great information. I am planning to retire in Palawan in about 5 years. I am retired Air Force, and intend to marry a filipina from Palawan. Any suggestions you have are welcome.
Steve Fleming says
David – Glad you found the article useful.
As far as suggestions for you I would say do as much research as you can, come over and spend some time on vacations, meet her and her family and above all, be careful. If your concerns are regarding safety then as long as you’re not living in a ‘high risk’ area you should be fine. I’ve lived in the Philippines for 11 years and have never had any problems.
Try to keep a low profile and always remember that YOU are a visitor and act accordingly.
Hope that helps.
John Lynch says
Good article, I’m glad someone finally wrote about it…was looking for an article. I know Filipinos who used to live in Mindanao …but no longer will live there. I know Filipinos who also own properties in Mindanao area and have body guards w/weapons who guard their area as they live and work in Manila. Otherwise they say that their property will be taken over.
Calvin Sparrow says
Really great article and very informative. As an American I have to say that I REALLY like the UK perspective of travel warnings in this particular case. The more details we know of the more we can prepare to be as safe as possible by avoiding certain areas.
I am still going to retire in the Philippines in 10 to 12 years so I have the opportunity to get as much knowledge as possible about where to go and where to avoid.
Thanks for all the great information and comments guys!
Your article is quite informative, thanks.
I have a question, I will be travelling to the Philippines in December going to the Cebu area and possibly the island of Siquijor, since they are close to northern Mindanao and Zamboanga Peninsula, do you know of any instances of problems for tourists (ie: kidnapping) in those areas? The Australian gov’t posted ‘Recent attacks have also created concerns that these groups have the capability to target locations frequented by tourists in southern Palawan, southern Negros or Siquijor’ . I am aware of the risks when travelling and of course nothing can be guaranteed but wanted your opinion.
derek hopkins says
We moved here back in July 2011 after I was living in UK.My wife is a Filipino and came to UK and we married.Due to various happenings work wise i decided top retire early and live on 2 private pensions.We moved here in Cabadbaran about 40 minutes travel from Butuan in the south.We have not had any trouble at all.Once or twice a few happenings a few miles away like someone was carrying drugs on a bus/coach and it was stopped and searched by police etc,this was at our home city bus terminal.Someone had tipped them off and they were waiting.Life is so different here but everyone is friendly.You just have to keep yourself to yourself and not mix with too many others.Life in general here is good,better than UK in my opinion.
Stephen Bentley says
William, I have to thank you for your comments. It prompted me to investigate the Australian travel warnings. As a result, I wrote a further article on the subject – Mindanao Revisited.
Stephen Bentley says
William, I am not aware of the Australian warning. I live in Negros and I am not aware of any current terrorist alerts on this island or indeed on Siquijor. I plan going there sometime next year and a friend of mine from the UK went to Siquijor a few weeks back, There is no problem there. But, to paraphrase what Steve says it’s best to travel and act with caution wherever you are in the Philippines.
In fact, whether I have been in New York, London, Rome, Bangkok or the other countless places I have been to I always travel with my wits about me and try to stay ‘under the parapet”. It helps to smile a lot too!
Thanks for the information.
I am planning a three week stay in iliagan city early next year (2016) but after reading this article I now find I that I may have some safety issues which I need help understanding.
Is this area safe to visit or not (I am English if that matters)?
I realise that nowhere is completely safe but having never visited the Philippines before I am naturally concerned and would value some honest advice/guidance. from people who have actually been there.
Can anyone help me on this?
Are you planning on travelling the Iligan City in Mindanao or to Ilagan City in Luzon?
I’m from Iligan City, Mindanao. Will be happy to answer questions.
I am planning a visit to both Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro in or around April next year (2016).
I am trying to find out how safe it will be for me to go there as I have read many conflicting reviews on the internet. Even our home office suggests this is a place to be avoided. The trouble is I need local knowledge in order to relax my mind.
My stay will be for about 3 to 4 weeks. I tend to travel on local transport.
Is this enough information for you to be able to help me?
Steve Fleming says
Kevin – Mitchell posted a lengthy and detailed response to your question which I’ve posted on the site.
You can read it in the post Staying Safe in Mindanao