The World’s Most Dangerous Places – Part 1: Unstable

Adventure Travel
Ethiopian soldiers ready for action in the Danakil. Photo: Martin Walsh

The first in a two-part series, Unstable looks at a small selection of countries and regions struggling to hold it together. Some are mired in perpetual warfare, others are struggling to control home-grown insurgencies or rampant crime. Others simply lack the necessary infrastructure to protect you if something goes wrong. From the infamous Darien Gap to the Sahel, there are plenty of places to think twice about including in your adventure plans.

Crime

The Global Peace Index ranks Iceland as the most peaceful country in the world using an algorithm that leans heavily on crime rates. So, what’s at the bottom of this list? Venezuela. The high ranking is not simply from petty crime: Its homicide rate is also seventh in the world.

Venezuela

Venezuela is currently grappling with political and economic disaster, so crime rates are unsurprising. Opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself acting president in January 2019 after Nicolas Maduro had been re-elected in controversial circumstances. A power struggle has ensued while the economy struggles and inflation soars. In the last three years, Venezuela’s currency has lost 99 percent of its value, and the outlook remains bleak for 2021. In November, the EU elected to extend sanctions against the regime for another year.

A host of other South and Central American countries feature sky-high crime rates. El Salvador, Honduras, Guyana, and Brazil all make the top 10. In Brazil, OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) data puts the homicide rate at 26.7 per 100,000 people, and polls reveal that only 36 percent of people feel safe walking home at night.

El Salvador

El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world, and Latin American cities dominate this list of the most murderous cities, led by Los Cabos in Mexico. You have to scroll down to number 13 before you find the first city from outside the region, St. Louis, Missouri.

South Africa

Homicide rates are a good indicator of relative danger, since nearly all homicides are reported to the police. Unfortunately, other crimes can be severely under-reported, especially sexual assaults. Of those reported, South Africa has the highest rape rate in the world. In a particularly horrifying 2009 poll of 1,738 South African men, 25 percent admitted to having raped someone.

Johannesburg is among the most dangerous cities in the world. Photo: Martin Walsh

The Darien Gap

Panama and Colombia don’t quite make the general crime top 10 but do feature the infamous Darien Gap, mythologized by an entire generation of thrill-seeking backpackers and adventurers. During the 1990s, its reputation was well-earned. A difficult mix of rainforest and swamp straddling the Colombia-Panama border, it became a haven for paramilitary groups. Recently it has stabilized a little, but it is still an important migrant corridor for those looking to head north toward the United States. This roadless swathe of jungle is also a drug smuggling route, primarily used by Colombian cartels.

Travel in the Darien Gap requires special permission. Those that are granted access take on the risk of robbery or kidnap, as well as the humidity, overgrown trails, and malaria mosquitoes.

War

Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan are all incredibly dangerous places to live, work, or visit. No surprises here. All five are considered extreme security risks by International SOS. Their definition of extreme risk makes for a bleak read: “Government control and law and order may be minimal or non-existent across large areas. Serious threat of violent attacks by armed groups targeting travelers and international assignees. Government and transport services are barely functional. Large parts of the country are inaccessible to foreigners.” Gulp.

International SOS’s color-coded security map. The darker the color, the greater the risk. Photo: International SOS

Syria

In Syria, the regime has won back large sections of the country, but several rebel groups still vie for control, including Daesh (often referred to as the Islamic State). Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran have all been drawn into a conflict there that shows no sign of ending soon.

Yemen

Unlike Syria, which was relatively stable under an oppressive dictatorship until 2011, Yemen has barely functioned for decades. Few will recall its days as a hippie-backpacker destination. An already unstable situation has become much worse since 2014, when the Houthi separatist movement took the capital, Sanaa.

Like Syria, Yemen is both a civil war and a proxy war. Violence escalated dramatically in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition came to counter the perceived Iranian support for the Houthi rebels. In 2020 alone, there were 19,000 combat-related fatalities.

Iraq

The forever wars of Afghanistan and Iraq continue too. In Iraq, some areas have achieved a degree of normalcy, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, but even here, Turkey has been flexing its regional muscle as it battles Kurdish nationalist forces. Almost 18 years after a US-led coalition invaded the country and deposed Saddam Hussein, the majority of Iraq remains a volatile mess.

Afghanistan’s far north is relatively safe but hard to reach. Photo: Martin Walsh

Afghanistan

Afghanistan is in an even worse state, with almost 10 times Iraq’s combat-related deaths in 2020. Despite this, 19 years after invading, the U.S. is pulling out of Afghanistan. In 1989, another super-power pulled out of Afghanistan, and as the Soviets retreated, a brutal civil war began. U.S. and NATO troops are expected to leave by May 2021, leaving a resurgent Taliban, stalled negotiations, and a bleak future.

Libya

Libya’s Arab Spring was short-lived. Muammar Gaddafi was deposed, but the country has fragmented into a hodgepodge of factions and a vicious power struggle. Terrorist groups have moved in, and as an obvious migrant route into Europe, people smuggling is now a major problem too. Libya’s conflict has helped fuel insurgency movements throughout the Maghreb.

Instability

Though instability and war often go hand-in-hand, in 2021 most countries can’t be described as “at war”, at least by the traditional definition. This section will therefore look at countries struggling to control terrorist insurgencies, ethnic divisions, and general social unrest.

The Sahel

The Sahel is a belt of land that divides the Sahara from the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, running from Senegal on the west coast to Eritrea on the east. This shore of the Sahara is a Wild West.

The Sahel. Photo: Wikipedia

Countries along the divide are battling terrorist insurgencies and crime syndicates that move freely through the porous borders, disappearing into the Sahara when threatened by a concerted military effort. Though some countries are better equipped to deal with these groups, power vacuums or conflicts in others can easily spill over and engulf larger areas. A report by one prominent think-tank, the International Crisis Group, notes that “during Niger’s 50 years of independence, the country has seen two armed rebellions, four coups, seven governments, and periods of promising democratic change as well as reversals.” Mali, Sudan, newly formed South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Somalia all boast similarly volatile recent histories. Compounding the region’s issues, the Sahel is hard hit by accelerating climate change (erratic rainfall and desertification) and food shortages.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s far north touches the Sahel but it is not normally lumped in with the countries described above. However, in 2020 Ethiopia plunged into chaos. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali, fresh off a 2019 Nobel Peace Prize win, has declared war on the restive province of Tigray. The government claims that the military operation ended after the capture of the Tigray capital, but there are fears that a gorilla conflict will drag on. The region is an ideal staging post for an insurgency, featuring rugged mountain terrain as well as the “gateway to hell”, the Danakil Depression. This sparsely populated desert is one of the lowest and hottest places on earth.

The lawless border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Photo: Martin Walsh

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Further south, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hasn’t made much progress. Ethnically charged conflicts continue in the east, and 2020 saw large demonstrations in the capital, Kinshasa. The country’s economic woes, vast size, and terrible infrastructure make it a difficult and dangerous place to work or travel.

Accidents

China and India have the most road deaths by number, but that’s understandable, given their huge populations. Per capita, the most dangerous countries to travel are African nations, with nine of the top 10. Liberia leads the pack but has far fewer total fatalities (1,657) than numbers two, four, and five on the list: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (26,529), Tanzania (16,211), and Thailand (22,491). If accurate statistics for boat deaths existed, the DRC would likely feature near the top there, too.

For fatal aviation accidents, the United States has by far the highest number. From 1945 to November 2020, there have been 860 fatal accidents. This probably reflects the size and relative wealth of America: Accidents tend to afflict small planes rather than commercial jets, and there are a lot of private planes in the U.S.

Russia ranks a distant second with 531 aviation accidents. Anyone who has traveled on regional aircraft in Russia will understand where this high ranking comes from.

About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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