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Missionary kidnappings on the rise

By David A. Jones

Apply both faith and caution overseas — and take out kidnap and ransom insurance.

As governments across the world wage war on drugs and black market trades, criminals are quietly advancing the front of another lucrative, illegal industry. Kidnapping, including extortion and detention, is now a global epidemic, growing 15 to 20 percent annually in hot spots such as Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia and Brazil.

In the last decade, kidnappers have expanded their sights beyond multinational corporate employees to missionaries dispatched from mission agencies, religious and higher education institutions and church groups. Missionary kidnappings around the globe now account for almost half of reported cases, a 100 percent increase over the last five years.

The increase is a result of two factors:

  • Relief organizations are pulling out of dangerous regions where kidnappers sought many of their victims, thereby reducing income for criminal organizations and forcing them to target alternative income sources – missionaries.
  • Authorities in countries like Haiti, Ecuador and Egypt — which are major mission fields — are reportedly encouraging the business of kidnapping.

Why Missionaries are easy targets:

  • Obvious language barriers make missionaries more vulnerable, particularly when traveling without a translator or cultural liaison.
  • Short-term missionaries travel with 90-day visa turnarounds. Coupled with deliberately slow court proceedings – unlike the United States’ sixth amendment guaranteeing a speedy trial – time is limited for court testimony against kidnappers. As a result, it either reduces or removes criminal penalty that would otherwise discourage further kidnapping.
  • A lack of comprehensive risk management training on how to act and react on unfamiliar foreign soil makes missionaries, particularly short-term missionaries, prime targets.

According to Citizens’ Action Against Crime (CAAC) and the Movement for the Restoration of Peace and Order (MRPO) in 2005, between 80 and 90 percent of kidnapping cases go unreported.

The average ransom for reported cases is $62,071, but settlements often are between 10 and 20 percent of the original demand. If the ransom is small and late, kidnappers may be discouraged from kidnapping again.

Most missionary-sending organizations have strict policies against ransom payments to discourage appearing as a bank for criminals. Organizations that do pay ransom as a business decision typically do so quietly. Some agencies’ stance on not paying ransom, like that of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE), serving 70 countries, affords some protection to its members simply because militant groups know that ransoms will not be paid by the organization. This public knowledge is often enough to discourage kidnapping.

Minimize your risks
Understanding the dominant religion of a country, its political climate (whether war-torn or controlled by an extremist group), and by being smart about conducting oneself is critical to safety and survival. Some tips:

  • Travel with a group.
  • Wear clothing local to the host country, removed of U.S. trademarks.
  • Conceal all monetary transactions.
  • Don’t give too much information.
  • Keep conversations short and brief, unless with a trusted party or authority.

Despite being extremely vigilant of their surroundings, missionaries still succumb to the hazards of foreign countries. Phil Snyder of Zeeland, MI, was abducted in Haiti during a mission trip for GLOW Ministries in 2005. Snyder planned to return to the U.S. with a Haitian child for eye surgery. Snyder, the child and his father were ambushed on a public road by kidnappers. They shot Snyder in the shoulder and abducted the party. The initial ransom was $300,000, but the kidnappers settled for a lesser undisclosed amount, returning Snyder to Michigan five days later.

Fortunately, it is rare that an abduction results in the death of the victim. In fact, most deaths related to abduction are due to an attempted rescue. Kidnappers in South and Central America tend to treat their religious hostages better, given the religious culture of the countries. The same holds true for Mexico where only 8 percent of kidnappings end in fatality, according to Clayton Consultants Inc. However, in Asia and the Middle East, death is far more likely for religious proponents.

Protect assets and provide relief
Reliance on the local embassy, the FBI and the sending organization’s crisis team are often not enough. Kidnap ransom detention and extortion insurance (K&R insurance) can provide protection and relief to victims.

The insurance not only reimburses the insured for the ransom amount, but also provides expert negotiating strategists, security consultants and interpreters, all of which may cost an average of $85,000 per incident, according to Lloyd’s of London. Additional risk management services offered are qualified counselors and medical rehabilitation facilities for when victims return stateside, as many have medical, cosmetic, psychiatric and dental impairments. The coverage also provides defense and indemnity to church and mission agencies from family or estate lawsuits. Finally, in addition to health, consultant and repatriation costs, the policy provides loss of income or receipts resulting from the incident.

A K&R policy’s ransom amount limit is typically determined by the person or sending organization’s net worth, since the policy only reimburses ransom paid and will not front the ransom demand. In some cases, banks will provide loans if the church or mission agency is deemed credit worthy. The premium starts around $1,000 and is based on net worth of insured, location, profile and loss experience. Since the mere knowledge of an insurance policy is a lure for any militant group, it is imperative that the insurance policy be kept private.

An insurance policy is no substitute for applying good judgment, listening to intuition, and staying abreast of all potential risks in the host country. Organizations can manage their risk best through the following:

  • Research the political climate often.
  • Understand the religious tolerance of the host country.
  • Determine the need for an insurance policy to assist with expenses and expert services.

Managing kidnapping risks is a continuous process. Missionaries should continually assess threats, vulnerabilities and consequences, and take appropriate action to reduce or eliminate risks.

David A. Jones is vice president at Lockton Companies, a privately owned, independent insurance and risk management broker. www.lockton.com

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