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Wrongful Detention Abroad

What You Need to Know

by: Joe Gleason, AHT Director of International Risk Management

The US State Department’s recent addition of wrongful detention as a risk indicator to travel advisories highlights an ongoing – and growing – challenge faced by those working and traveling globally.  High profile cases such as Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan in Russia along with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran have drawn attention to the risk of arbitrary and often politically motivated detention in countries with limited rule of law.  As with many risks – and more than some – it may be impossible to eliminate the possibility that personnel will be wrongfully detained. Instead, organizations should focus on mitigating the risk and preparing to respond to incidents of wrongful detention.


What can organizations do to address this challenge? Start by understanding the risk and mitigating it through effective travel and operational planning and risk management:

  • Understand the risk environment and in particular the risk of wrongful detention by the range of state actors. Does it occur? Are there “typical” targets or ways in which detentions unfold? Be especially aware of flashpoints or periods of increased tension when risk of detention may increase – elections, conflict, checkpoints, etc.
  • Assess the degree to which the work being done might increase the risk of detention. As NGOs working in civil society and rights know all too well, certain types of activities may increase the likelihood of being targeted by authorities. Assess the risk objectively and plan accordingly.
  • Ensure travelers obtain appropriate visas, offices are registered, taxes are paid and otherwise maintain a legal presence. Unfriendly governments may look for opportunities to use seemingly innocuous or arcane violations as a pretext for detention.
  • Understand if any equipment or supplies are illegal or require special permits, including satellite phones, GPS devices, personal medication, etc.
  • Track personnel traveling who are working globally and have established communication protocols for personnel to check-in.


Since mitigation doesn’t eliminate the risk of wrongful detention, it’s essential that organizations are prepared to respond:

  • Maintain contingency plans to respond when someone isn’t where they’re supposed to be. Many detention (as well as kidnap) cases start with someone who is unaccounted for or otherwise not where they’re supposed to be. Pay particular attention when transiting airports or locations with frequent checkpoints where the opportunity for detention is heightened.
  • Pre-identify legal resources in countries where the risk of wrongful detention is high.
  • Ensure team members know who to contact 24/7 to report unaccounted for or detained personnel and begin crisis management.
  • Include wrongful detention in crisis management planning and training. While some elements look similar to kidnap for ransom, there are key differences.
  • Provide support to family members of those wrongfully detained; the organization Hostage US is an invaluable resource for both planning family support as well as aiding families during a detention.
  • Engage crisis response consultants embedded in a Special Risks (aka Kidnap Ransom Extortion) insurance policy for guidance and support. Consider other external resources that could be essential including legal and crisis communications.


The embassy and home government of the person detained may play a significant role in seeking the release of a citizen wrongfully detained.  But contrary to portrayals in the media and the movies, the government rarely takes over management of a wrongful detention case. Organizations should have a realistic expectation of the role of governments and understand how best to coordinate with them to achieve the safe and timely release of those wrongfully detained.


In today’s complex global risk environment, wrongful detention is one of many challenges facing organizations working around the world. And the risk is not going away any time soon.  Applying and adapting the principles of risk management — prepare, mitigate and respond – is essential to enable global operations and support people around the world.