Expat Living: Where Is The Safest Place To Be An Expat?

When I left the United States to go to Azerbaijan, people assumed if they couldn’t pronounce the place, it must be unsafe.

They also seemed to correlate having a “Z” in the name with being unsafe. (Zs must be the sketchy letter of the alphabet… who knows?)

It’s very sad, and very ironic, given the events of this past few weeks, in Paris and here in the United States, aka the “safe places”.

I resisted writing this post after Paris out of respect.

A few days after the most recent horrific events, I was caught up in the chaos of  a blockade on my way into my office in Washington D.C.- anytime you hear the words “Active Shooter” in the capital your heart dies a little more.  I rationalize the fear saying it’s the cost of being a big target.

Expat Living: Safest Place to Live - Image of the Washington Post newspaper headline of Shooting in CA 12-02-2015

That Sick, Sad Feeling…Again

But I am shaken today in a way I haven’t been before. These events are getting too close to home; too many, too fast.

When others warned me of going to Azerbaijan, it was justified perhaps- after all they are at war with Armenia, people said. After all, Baku is the capital in an unstable region bordering Iran, they said. It’s a Muslim country, may not be friendly to Americans, they said.

That was all very far away and unknown to the fear mongerers trying to talk me out of going.

But today? I am on high alert at work because… today is the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.

How sad is that. Please stay home they said.  Please don’t be in the area they said.

Yesterday’s shooting at a holiday party in San Bernardino  yanked at my memories in ways that Paris hadn’t, the Active Shooter hadn’t, the Tree Lighting doesn’t.

No, this latest shooting is different. I know this place well. I was born at the military base there. When my father retired and we moved back, it was to Redlands, a lovely small town in the heart of the orange growing region known for its mild winters. I used to drive down Waterman Avenue regularly going from Redlands to see my grandmother.

My cousin works at Loma Linda hospital, and I still have aunts and uncles in the area.  Too close for comfort. Overwriting small town idyllic memories with tragedy now.

It’s the same with Gabrielle Giffords and Tuscon, where I used to visit my great-uncle’s ranch, watching as the town became a city surrounding the land where we used to ride our horses.

So how are expats supposed to feel about leaving the familiar and “facing the great unknown” (as my ex-husband called it, when he explained that I was on my own over in Baku- he had delayed (stalled) three years and was just then deciding he didn’t want to live outside the United States. He didn’t feel safe he said.) (How’s that working out for you?)

I’ll bet there are many hits on this web link today:  The World’s Best Places To Retire In 2015 :

I noticed that the United States isn’t even on this list. Hmmm… could be quality of life not just safety,  but it is hard to imagine that Colombia with its thriving drug cartel and anti-US stance actually ranks in the top 10 and the US can’t even compete with it! Wow…

I wonder how France’s rating is being re-calculated in light of two serious terrorist attacks in 12 months… not too retiree friendly these days, but maybe away from Paris all is calm.

Azerbaijan isn’t on this list for any number of reasons- expats don’t “fit in” as much as belong to a class of citizen that floats along in the same river.  We didn’t have quite the same problems, and had many more benefits.  If we weren’t expats connected to a company (as I wasn’t) it was easy to get lost.  But life was still interesting, if not always comfortable to Euro-standards, but I always felt safe.

I took the Metro every week- even after the bombing. And did so for years without incident.  I cannot say the same for the DC metro.

At #3 Mexico should feel honored. With all the worries about air pollution and safe drinking water, quality of life can be challenging. Pick-pockets in France and Italy are a nuisance but rarely a threat to safety. I am rarely concerned about any of those hazards in my home country, yet I admit, I am vigilant when I walk the streets here at night- and day, actually.  I am always careful who is around me, in ways I rarely thought about in Baku.

That so many of the most favored choices are Latin American is a testament to what cheap, affordable housing can do for your cost of living and hence the quality of life.  Ecuador’s 100 score on climate would attract many from Boston after last year’s record snow… after snow… after snow!

I’m not sure who the retiree market for Viet Nam is, or how it has a perfect cost of living score at 100% when buying & renting are only 57%, but it’s clearly of interest to some around the world who view Viet Nam as a step up from their home country.  Friends who have traveled there have loved it, so there will be a market somewhere.

In case you’re thinking that this ranking only considers money and dining out as factors for lifestyle for retirement, think again. Safety is a key component of quality rankings. Although as any expat knows, trying to imply that statistics in Rome will apply equally in Sienna is like saying that New York City crime is the same as Omaha- it  just doesn’t fit.

Image of retirement haven factors, including safety, is helpful for expats

A Happy Retirement or Expat Posting Relies on Many Factors

Being an expat 20-30 years ago entailed many different worries- would the water be safe to drink, would we be able to get mail? Would the natives be friendly?

Today we are connected and can get most anything we need-albeit at some cost- anywhere we go. Today we have different concerns and mostly they revolve around personal and family safety- will the company negotiate? Will they provide K&R (Kidnap & Ransom) insurance for you and your family?

“Today, at least 75% of Fortune 500 companies hold K&R insurance policies, according to industry estimates obtained from more than a dozen insurers and brokers. Insurers are just now seeing the financial rewards from insuring executives in increasingly risky and remote locales.”  –The Guardian (UK)


“DANIA BEACH, Florida—The day I fly from New York to Miami to attend a kidnap prevention and survival course, I read an article about a foiled abduction of two Americans at a barbershop in Yemen. The kidnappers, it turned out, had chosen their victims poorly: One was a United States Special Ops commando, the other a CIA officer, both attached to the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. The Americans shot and killed their would-be abductors. They had followed Andy “Orlando” Wilson’s Golden Rule of surviving a kidnapping: Don’t get kidnapped.” NYTimes

Apologies if all this sounds grim… I’m in a restless mood, thinking about the world that was and the world that is. I wonder how many others won’t have the joy of travel because of these events? I wonder how many expat assignments will be turned down for the wrong reasons, like my ex-husband.  His loss. It was a joy for me.

I hope when you look at expat assignments, you will think about safety and about how to keep your family safe, but also look at assumptions.

They told me I was crazy to go to Baku, Azerbaijan (it sounded weird and foreign and unsafe- that z thing I think!)- it turned out to be a gift, one with manageable risk.

They told me I was lucky to come home and land on my feet in Washington DC.  Today as we prepare to light the national Christmas tree in a few minutes, I can’t go. They aren’t sure what risks there may be and having fewer “civilians” makes it easier to control.

Why not just have remote cameras and piped in music? Throw a switch from a safe location and there you go.  Everyone is safe.

And that’s why we won’t make the top 25 Best Places To Retire. I just hope we stay ahead of Yemen at this point!

If you are outside the US, what has the news been for you? Does this sound panicked or did it even make your news?  I’d like to know if I am reacting to the repetition of the same story, different place, or if others feel this way now too.

Does this make you worry about visiting America? Or do you go where you want to go and use caution?

Tell me where the riskiest place you have ever traveled has been, and how it turned out.  Help me get my balance back!


Thank for listening, and helping tell both sides of the story!  I love you all for being intrepid travelers!



4 thoughts on “Expat Living: Where Is The Safest Place To Be An Expat?

  1. Things change. It seems if we seek out completely safe refuges, we may be wrong in a couple of years, if not for health reasons, then for safety issues. I’ve been thinking a lot about picking an ideal spot for retirement, and am coming to the conclusion that there isn’t any. I may turn this quest into choosing a 5-year plan – if something works for five years, then that is good enough. Stay safe!


    • Susan, you are so right! I’ve gotten through my share of life changes just on that Soviet 5-year plan concept, There really is something to it. If the chicken coop isn’t your forever place, where do you think you and Stanley could be happiest among the not-forever-places? Interesting to compare notes. I’m just happy anywhere we don’t get 24 hour news!

      And to think when I was in Baku, I used to listen to Deutsche Welle on and on just hoping to catch that 20 minutes English segment once each hour. I didn’t care that it was always the same news, I just wanted to feel connected again… now I can’t wait to unplug every Friday-Sunday! Odd huh?


      • Not odd at all. Twenty-four hours news has it definite draw-backs. Since we are only 3 1/2 years into this five-year plan, I haven’t a clue as to what comes next. It still does feel like a vacation, and maybe that’s the unexpected wisdom of this plan. I am hoping to explore Baja California sometime soon!


  2. Jonelle, as you know well, safe is a relative term, and this thoughtful post points it out very well. Obviously, there are places that are unsafe (Places like Yemen come to mind.), and there are places that are advertised as safe, that probably aren’t. There have been times in my past when I knew things weren’t safe, and I’m sure that there were times when I thought I was safe, and wasn’t. But my philosophy has always been that I won’t let unsupported fear keep me from traveling. As you point out, much of safety, no matter where you travel, comes down to common sense. If a place doesn’t feel or look safe, it probably isn’t. I keep my passport in my pocket and my political opinions to myself. Also, I try not to look or act like a rich foreigner, and try to move through under the radar. I do my own research and don’t depend on TV news for safety issues. If I listened to TV all the time, I’d never leave the house. Of course, safety issues can’t be ignored, but they’re frequently overblown, and media outlets are scaring people needlessly. Anyway, that’s my one rant for the year. In the meantime, I wish you all the best for a happy, healthy … and safe 2016. ~James


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