The new Social Progress Index 2014 has just been released with its plethora of talking points for policy junkies and pedestrian pundits alike. We’re feeling a little macabre, so rather than talk about the state of world health or freedom or clean water, we've decided to make our first order of business: Where in the world are you most likely to come to harm in 2014?
Before you list off the many countries you can think of that regularly came up in reports of violent protests, suicide bombings, drone strikes, missile attacks and other news-worthy events of the past 12 months, know that some of the most unsafe countries this year are among the hottest vacationing spots in the world. No, that has nothing to do with bad seafood or shark attacks (which rarely happen; leave the sharks alone). This is about the frequency of murder, crime and fatal traffic incidents, as well as more sweeping trends like human rights abuses, political terror and genocidal violence.
Many countries which ranked as 'most dangerous' either fall into the “beach paradise” category or the “child gangs, drug cartels and car bombings” category (or a little of both). Apparently tourism can exist as close to violence as political instability, inter-warring and institutionalized drug trafficking. But before you rethink your summer vacation, use some common sense here: Flying to your favourite beach resort and checking into the Marriott doesn’t carry the same kind of risk as strolling through the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Like anywhere else, there’s always the paradise you see and the hell you don’t. In the most unfortunate cases however, it seems there's very little of the former picture.
Here are the 10 countries which scored lowest for personal safety in 2014, based on the SPI’s 100-point personal safety index (where the safest countries score nearer 100).
10 Sudan: 37.25
Sudan isn’t exactly one of those beach paradises. A whole fifth of citizens here live on less than $1.25 US a day, and as one of the so-called “hungriest” nations in the world enormous swaths of the population live in abysmal conditions. Ethnic strife and slavery have been a mainstay for most of Sudan’s history, but the danger here comes equally from above with a government that retains power through flagrant human rights-abusing militias partial to widespread killings, rape, systematic torture, robbery and recruitment of child soldiers. Since 1983, nearly 2 million Sudanese have died to civil war and famine.
9 Mexico: 34.61
Mexico is in fact one of the most visited countries in the world and makes more money from tourism than any other Latin American country. But its abundance of historical and ecological marvels conceals a shoddy track record for human rights, especially in southern parts of the country populated by segregated indigenous peoples and poor urbanites. Then there’s the drug cartels, who are said to employ over 100,000 people in a never-ending clash against narco authorities. Estimates say the drug war here has claimed over 60,000 dead and 20,000 missing, with a homicide rate nearly three times the world average. When 4% of drug related violence claims innocent victims, safety isn’t exactly guaranteed in many parts of the country.
8 Honduras: 33.94
Official reports say Honduras had 81 murders for every 100,000 people last year. The year before, UNODC pinned this country's murder rate as the highest in the world. That mostly comes from the Honduras you don’t see. If you’re planning to visit, take a group tour to the Copan Mayan ruins and you’ll be well guarded by a strong police presence. Venture outside the tourism bubble, and it’s not unheard of for police calls to go completely ignored against rampant carjacking, kidnapping and violence. With hugely impoverished populations occupying this politically unstable transit point in the Latin American drug trade, gang crime abounds with impunity.
7 Dominican Republic: 32.90
As one of the world’s go-to places for beaches and ecotourism, rest assured travel destinations are the Dominican’s biggest export for a reason. If you’re abiding by a travel brochure, you might just run the risk of a purse-snatching at worst. But in the hearts of cities like La Altagracia and Santo Domingo Province, the drug trade paints a different picture. When you stand on a Dominican beach, you can either stare out to the sublime turquoise waters and breathe the salty air, or turn around and imagine the millions of dollars of illegal cocaine and weapons exchanging hands underground. As for the poor road conditions, with no right-of-way for pedestrians and lack of traffic controls you might want to rethink that car rental and hop on a guided tour.
6 Chad: 31.97
Chances are you’re not planning to kick back in a failed state anytime soon. When Save the Children doesn’t even want to enter the country for fear of having its aid workers killed, tourism is probably out of the question. Chad has been called the most corrupt country in the world thanks to an unstable and abusive political landscape orbited by rampant tribal warfare. Official security forces in Chad practice arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, torture and rape with near-impunity, and virtually no one recognizes the legitimacy of an administration clinging to power by plundering the nation’s oil reserves.
5 South Africa: 30.90
Luckily for South Africa the SPI didn’t count sexual aggression among their safety measures this year (estimates say 500,000 women are raped annually here by one in every four men — the highest rate of sexual violence the world). Regardless, with 50 murders happening daily, it’s no surprise violent crime and thievery are two of the most cited reasons for emigration out of South Africa's borders. In 2007, a major South African insurance company discontinued policies on Volkswagen Citi Golfs simply because they were stolen too often; so while you might get away with ignoring the occasional stop sign in your hometown, if you find yourself at the stop sign in a South African city you should probably keep driving.
4 Central African Republic: 29.41
It’s not often a government advises against travelling to its own country. Bandits, armed rebel groups and poachers have virtually destroyed tourism in the echo of CAR’s civil war, and civilian safety remains entirely unenforced in many parts of the country. However, this lack of security might spare you a torture, beating, rape, or imprisonment under subhuman conditions by the country’s security forces; you might just have to deal with a heavily-armed youth gang instead.
Last November, the UN and France separately put the Central African Republic on genocide watch. Since then, human rights group Amnesty International identified several massacres of Muslim civilians by a Christian group; thousands of Muslims are currently fleeing the country.
3 Venezuela: 27.55
President Hugo Chavez’s untimely death last year left little optimism that the country would undergo significant improvements in crime anytime soon. All the institutional mechanisms for a dangerous landscape are in place here, including standardized corruption, politically-backed drug trafficking and a highly overcrowded prison system. The data paints a picture of Venezuela as one of the most unequivocally violent places on earth: A homicide every 21 minutes — more than 200,000 over the last 15 years alone. Its rate of violent death in peacetime rivals Iraq in the midst of violent war. The most telling fact here? The Venezuelan government no longer publishes its crime statistics.
2 Nigeria: 23.57
Nigeria is a textbook example of what an “oil cursed” country looks like. With the government concentrating its efforts on protecting its oil exports (and looting the treasury) the country remains socially and politically underdeveloped. Official security forces here practice arbitrary detention, violence, rape and torture, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta region where conflict rarely subsides. Underdevelopment has left Nigeria vulnerable to capture by a vast network of organized crime around the drug trade: As Nigerian gangs compete to ship heroin from East to West, and cocaine from West to East, violence breaks out in the street and claims hundreds of civilian lives every year.
1 Iraq: 21.52
Iraq might be an obvious choice as the most dangerous country in the world, but the full nature of that danger tends to get overlooked. Despite the Iraq War officially ending with US withdrawal in 2011, insurgency within its borders remains virtually unchanged. A lack of stable government has ushered in comprehensive networks of organized crime in the vein of drug trafficking in the Balkans, Mexico and Nigeria. Here however, the rise of this criminal landscape becomes all the more potent in a post-war scenario marked by insurgent groups who build and in turn harness power from the organized crime operations. According to the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security, 2013 was the worst year for civilian deaths since the height of War in 2008.