For more information about a particular point, click on the light bulbs!
A country can have a fantastic climate, impressive job opportunities and dream villas available at a snip; but you wouldn’t retire or move your family there if you were constantly worried about being stabbed or defrauded.
Moreover, a high level of corruption and/or a questionable justice system can make life very difficult. Should you be affected by crime or other misfortune, a strong rule of law is essential if you want a satisfactory outcome (unless you’re willing and able to bribe your way through a corrupt system – not advised!).
Corruption is, as I said, a huge hurdle to a properly-functioning legal system, and for that reason it is prudent to avoid areas with high corruption levels.
Corruption can also mean curtailed freedom of speech, danger for journalists, and crackdowns on activism. In fact, Transparency International note that low protection for journalists very often correlates with high levels of corruption. In a highly corrupt country, ‘whistle blowing’ – telling the world about dodgy practices in government or business – can be career suicide or even lead to physical danger.
It is also annoying on a more mundane level: having to learn the ‘unspoken rules’ of slipping the right person a banknote so that you can drive away from a traffic stop, or process some paperwork.
Transparency International release a regular Corruption Perceptions Index , which ranks countries by their perceived (by analysts and people on the ground) corruption levels. It’s well worth a look.
Encouraging factors in a country include easy access to government information (statistics, budgets, company ownership, legal process etc.), strong whistle-blower and journalist protection laws, and a free media.
Types of crime
Crime can generally be split into two categories: victim-based crime and crimes against society. A country with an excess of either of these is one to think twice about.
Victim-based crime is what most potential expats are most worried about. It includes theft, violence, identity fraud, sexual assault and homicide. It is pretty obvious why you would not want to live in an area where this kind of crime is rife.
Crimes against society, although they have less immediate effect on your personal safety, will also erode your quality of life. They include crimes like drug offences, possession of illegal weapons and driving under the influence of narcotics. A city with high numbers of drug dealers and illegal weaponry is likely to see gang activity. Countries that are lax about prosecuting drunk drivers have unsafe roads.
Less dramatically, crimes against society also include things like littering or dogs fouling the pavements – not dangerous but certainly not pleasant to be around.
Crime risk by country
Solid crime statistics are difficult to come by for many countries. Often, governments are reluctant to publish the full figures. Equally, law enforcers may not deal with, or process, crimes reported to them; and in a country with a poor legal system, citizens may not bother to report crimes in the first place.
For that reason, ‘crime by numbers’ is often an indicator of how seriously crime is taken within a country as much as it is a judgement of its safety.
That said, there are some great resources out there for you to look at.
Most thorough is probably the United Nations’ UNODC Statistics database. Through this tool, you can view crime statistics for 184 countries and many more sub-regions.You can check statistics for many types of crime. Obviously, you want to be wary of countries with high assault, sexual violence and homicide rates. Homicide is one type of crime that is almost always reported the world over – and so is a good indicator of a country’s safety.
For a more general overview, I like the “Safety” indicator within OECD’s Better Life Index. It covers fewer countries but goes into analytic detail of those it does.
You should also check out the Rule of Law Index , which ranks countries by overall rule of law and, usefully, drills down into each and examines dozens of relevant factors.
Reducing your crime risk
The sad reality is that there is one ‘easy’ way to reduce the risk of becoming a crime victim: have a lot of money.
As OECD notes:
People with higher income and higher education usually report higher feelings of security and face lower risks of crime. This can be explained by the fact they can afford better security and are less exposed to criminal activities such as youth gangs or drug smuggling.”
However, be aware that in some parts of the world looking distinctly ‘well off’ in comparison to your fellow residents can put you at risk of pick-pocketing, mugging or fraud.
Do your research
Every country – indeed, every city – comes with a unique culture and crime risk.
Some countries will be rife with pickpockets. Others will require diligence against credit card fraud. Some cities have high gang/drug activity, meaning that you will need to know which neighbourhoods to avoid.
Find out which criminal activities are most common in the area and how to avoid them.
Speak to expats who have lived in the area for a while already, and read our individual guides for the countries you are interested in.
A gated community is a residential area with strictly controlled entrances. Most will have fences and gates on the perimeter. Some will have security guards and regular patrols.
Many expats living in countries with high crime rates (and often in safer countries) choose to buy or rent properties in gated communities.
This has its pros and cons.
On the plus side, gated communities are – obviously – more secure. You’re at less risk of burglaries and kidnapping. They can be a good choice for people who travel a lot (a house left for weeks or months full of appliances and other valuables is a tempting target for a criminal).
Many gated communities will have a home owners’ association (HOA) or equivalent. This can be seen as a pro or a con. On one hand, this means that your neighbours will likely have a good sense of pride in their homes. There’s a good chance the area will have a pleasant ‘community’ feel. On the other hand, HOA fees can be expensive. You will have less say in how you look after and decorate your property.
There are other fees that can come along with gated communities. Roads are often deemed ‘private’; so you and your neighbours could end up footing the bill to fix that pothole.
Gated communities are usually further away from ‘the centre of things’, meaning that your commute or trip to the shops will take longer. They can also act as a barrier from integrating quickly with the local culture.
The properties themselves also tend to be more expensive. Of course, if you can afford one, there is a good chance that the property’s value will increase over the years.
While gated communities do tend to decrease crime risks, they do not eliminate them; and they are not for everyone.
Justice and the rule of law
A reliable, easy-to-use justice system and a fair rule of law are very important factors when deciding where to live, work or do business. It can determine safety, stress levels and financial security.
What is the rule of law?
The World Justice Project defines the rule of law under four principles:
- The government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities are accountable under the law.
- The laws are clear, publicized, stable, and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property.
- The process by which the laws are enacted, administered, and enforced is accessible, fair, and efficient.
- Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical, and independent representatives and neutrals who are of sufficient number, have adequate resources, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.”
What should you look out for?
If you find yourself in a civil dispute, will you be able to solve it effectively, affordably and quickly? Will the local government favour a well-known business owner over an expat if you are seeking compensation?
Are criminal laws well enforced and dealt with? Are you likely to have difficulty bringing an attacker or fraudster to justice? Are you more likely to be attacked or defrauded here than in other countries? Given the upsides of this country, is that risk acceptable to you?
How much do your fundamental human rights mean in this country? Can you expect a lack of discrimination in day-to-day life and within the court system? Can you practice freedom of religion? How about right to assembly? What will your labour/work rights look like?
Justice and the rule of law by country
Again, see the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for rankings and information.
Also read our individual guides on the legal system, court cases and disputes and criminal law for the countries you are interested in.