A Quick Word About Safety in Manila

For some reason, I’ve had a lot of questions lately about personal safety in Manila and the Philippines more generally. Mainly from people who are considering visiting for holiday or work but have been ‘warned’ about safety, often by friends or relatives who last visited during the Marcos era.

The security situation in Manila especially is very much exaggerated – frankly, I feel safer walking around Manila at 2 in the morning than in my home town of Melbourne. Except for a number of war-torn provinces in Mindanao where the military have been clashing with Muslim extremists for decades, the Philippines is generally a very safe place to be and, petty crime aside, the risk of physical violence or danger is extremely low. The chances of falling victim to property or violent crime are minimal if you stay alert, are observant of your surroundings and don’t flaunt your valuables.

That said, there are a few specific points to be aware of:

• Under no circumstance allow yourself to be drawn into a potentially violent or physical confrontation. It can be tempting to a Westerner, when confronted by an agitated Filipino local who may be a head shorter and 30% lighter than them, to assume there is nothing to worry about. Things can escalate quickly, however, and it must be remembered that weapons (including both legal and illegal handguns) are common. If you find yourself in such a situation, yell for the nearest visible police officer or security guard (common in metro areas) or, if none available, get off the street and into a bank, hotel, shopping center or any other type of public building immediately and report the threat. Raising your voice or yelling in public is rare and frowned upon in the Philippines and will immediately attract the attention of everyone within earshot.

• Never invite someone to your hotel room or apartment unless you know (and trust) them well and NEVER leave anyone you’ve just met unattended in your room for any length of time. Mind you, if you’re the sort of person who invites ‘pretty ladies’ you just met at 2am in P. Burgos Street up to your room and then leaves them alone while you go and take a shower, well…………

• If travelling by car, jeepney or other motorized transport, keep your hands and arms inside and the windows mostly raised. It is not unheard of for watches, bracelets, phones and other valuables to be snatched by passing pedestrians or bike riders who are then able to disappear into the traffic.

• At airports, bus and train stations you may be approached by a smiling local offering to help carry your bags – needless to say, politely decline the offer!

• Finally, although most of the Philippines is extremely accommodating and welcoming of Westerners, as I mentioned earlier, there are areas (mainly in the Southern regions surrounding Mindanao) where caution is advised due to insurgent activity and kidnapping risk. Updated and detailed travel warnings may be found on the U.S. Department of State website.

If something does happen and you need assistance, dial 117 or 911 (commencing August 2016, the 117 service began to be gradually being replaced across the Philippines by 911 and has mostly been completed by now). This will immediately link you to the local police services, local fire departments, ambulance services and other public services. Calling these numbers is free of charge and operators will, almost certainly, be fluent in English. In the unlikely event this is not the case, immediately hang up and call again.

As always, my usual recommendations about travelling apply – treat the locals with respect, be polite, maintain appropriate (but not paranoid) situational awareness and, above all, don’t be an ass!

EDITED IN RESPONSE TO A COMMENT ABOUT FEELING SAFER IN MELBOURNE THAN MANILA!!

I don’t have figures specifically for Melbourne but, nationally, Australia ranks far higher (5 – 10 times) than the Philippines for Rapes, Assaults, and Serious Assaults (Australia vs Philippines: Crime Facts and Stats).

The Philippines ranks around 5 times higher than Australia for deaths involving firearms. However, this stat’ includes ‘institutional’ deaths (those involved with military and government actions, such as the insurgency activity in Mindanao).

In short, as I mentioned originally, you are far far safer in the Philippines on the street at midnight, than you would be in any large city in Australia – as long as you’re not in the middle of a war zone!

By the way – there are a variety of reasons why, at an individual level, Australia is a much more violent place than the Philippines (and many others around the world). It’s a complex answer though and has a lot of economic, cultural, and social aspects to it. Best left for another blog post!

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