What PH's 'Level 2' ranking means in new U.S. travel warning system

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 11 2018 03:13 AM

Soldiers stand guard at the heavily damaged Grand Mosque of Marawi. Islamic State-linked terrorists holed up in the mosque before government troops recaptured it three months after the clashes began. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/file photo

The United States on Wednesday unveiled a way to warn its citizens about the dangers of foreign travel, with a four-point safety ranking system for countries and an interactive world map.

Ten war zones and failed states are ranked Level Four, "Do Not Travel": Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

North Korea is also Level Four, with the additional restriction that US law prohibits American travelers from using their passports there, effectively banning visits. 

But some of the other country ratings may raise eyebrows -- or international anger -- even if the State Department says it is only presenting existing advice in a new format.

Officials insisted the change was to make advice clearer to US travelers, but the travel warning system has long been controversial and often offends foreign capitals.

"These are not political documents. These are simply based on our assessment of the security situation," senior consular official Michelle Bernier-Toth said. 

'Exercise increased caution in the Philippines'

The Philippines, key U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific, is Level Two.

The U.S. State Department, in its latest advisory issued January 10, 2018, says Americans should "exercise increased caution in the Philippines due to crime, terrorism, and civil unrest."

It said Americans should not travel to: "The Sulu Archipelago, including the southern Sulu Sea, due to crime, terrorism, and civil unrest; Marawi City in Mindanao due to terrorism and civil unrest."

Meanwhile, it urges its citizens to reconsider travel to other areas of Mindanao due to crime, terrorism, and civil unrest.

It said "the U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in the Sulu Archipelago and Sulu Sea as U.S. government employees must obtain special authorization to travel to those areas," which is rife with "terrorist and armed groups that kidnap U.S. citizens on land and at sea for ransom."

Other major European allies like Britain, France and Germany are also Level Two, "exercise increased caution," while authoritarian Uzbekistan gets Level One, "exercise usual precautions."

On Tuesday, U.S. senators heard State Department officials say someone known to the Cuban government has a mystery weapon that they use to cause brain trauma to Americans in Havana.

But Cuba is ranked only Level Three, "Reconsider Travel." 

Officials insisted the change was to make advice clearer to US citizens that plan to travel.

Some countries have complained in the past that warnings exaggerate dangers and damage tourism, or suspect they have been subjected to a US diplomatic rebuke.

But each warning is accompanied by a country page on the travel.state.gov website, explaining what specific threats have been identified and why the advice has been given.

Western European capitals, for example, while prosperous and politically stable, have seen recent attacks by Islamist militants in areas popular with tourists.

Mexico, a Level Two country, has complained in the past that US alerts hurt tourism, but the site gives a detailed breakdown of areas to avoid because of drug cartel violence. 

The United States itself is not rated in the new system.

But as a rough guide, America's per capita murder rate of 4.88 per 100,000 people puts it between Cuba at 4.72 ("reconsider travel") and Somalia at 5.56 ("do not travel"). - with a report from Agence France-Presse