By Jacob Bretz In 2015 the State Department maintained travel advisories on 43 countries ranging from our southern neighbor, Mexico, to the Republic of North Korea. Official travel advisories issued by the State Department are split into two distinct categories, “travel alerts” and “travel warnings.” Travel alerts are often assigned to states in current turmoil, perhaps countrywide protests or environmental troubles. While travel warnings suggest more permanent instability, such as countries locked in violent civil war. Criteria for these alerts and warnings also include major epidemic, terrorist activity, increased crime, or even government related issues. This State Department watch list can be a valuable tool in deciding where and when to travel, but it is often the be-all end-all in decisions made by United States organizations. How does the State Department reach such important decisions and how does this impact North Park’s international opportunities?
There are no official parameters for travel alerts and travel warnings given on the U.S. Department of State’s official website. Instead there are only vague phrases explaining their reasoning, such as “We issue a Travel Warning when we want you to consider very carefully whether you should go to a country at all,” and “We issue a Travel Alert for short-term events we think you should know about when planning travel to a country.” There are no official time restrictions given on either of these notices. In fact, there are few concrete statistics on their website at all. And many of the countries they target seem out of place.
Take the State Department’s case against the Philippines for example. The long-term travel warning issued to the island nation was renewed on November 20th, 2014 on the grounds of insurgent activity and international kidnapping. In the same year, only 48 kidnapping cases were filed in the Philippines according to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. That contrasts the 203,900 officially recognized cases of child kidnapping nationwide in the United States in 2013. There were 627,911 missing person reports filed in 2013, with 165,344 of them being people over the age of 18 in the U.S. If rates of kidnapping in the United States are so much higher than in the Philippines, why does the State Department insist on labeling the country as dangerous? Is it because of the 44 peaceful protests–which contained “an element of anti-American sentiment”– near the American Embassy in the past year? Or perhaps because of the political violence that happened six years ago in 2009, which did little to effect foreigners in the country? So why does the State Department effectively blacklist the Philippines?
No matter the reasoning behind these government decisions, they still impact travel opportunities. “North Park closely monitors all travel warnings issued by the U.S. Department of State and will suspend any travel to countries or regions deemed unsafe,” is the official statement North Park’s study abroad office offers on travel warnings. Surely student safety, parental concern, and insurance liability are driving forces in the University’s decision to uphold the State Department's list. But if North Park wants to maintain the tenets of service, significance, and experiential learning that are constantly touted around, there needs to be a dramatic change somewhere in international travels.
How can an Africana Studies major fully understand her major if 22 African countries are under a warning label? What if a Criminal Justice student wants to learn first hand about Columbian drug enforcement efforts if the university refuses to allow him to study in that environment? What of those involved International Business with no access to the economic powerhouse of Saudi Arabia? And Global Studies majors? The Conflict Transformation department? If North Park appreciates problem solving as much as their constant talks of cultural and racial reconciliation suggest, there needs to be a dramatic change in its willingness to get into the uglier places of the world. The State Department must make more rational decisions, and North Park international study decisions must be made without the influence of this list. Otherwise, North Park students wishing to learn in damaged areas will have to travel alone.