In our last article, we discussed travel safety for those attending the European Football Championship (Euro 2012) in Poland. However, only about half of the Championship will take place there. The rest of the matches will be played in the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Kiev. This article will address the challenges facing visitors to the Ukraine, which is a considerably more daunting country than Poland.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of travel safety in Ukraine is the ineffectiveness of the police and emergency services. Ukrainian police are poorly paid, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. They have a reputation for corruption and often do not enforce laws or properly investigate reported crimes. Moreover, they seem particularly disinterested in investigating crimes against Westerners. They will, however, stop people on the street and ask for identification, even while dressed in plainclothes. Understandably, some travelers find these encounters intimidating. This is why it is a good idea for visitors to carry proper identification with them at all times, as those who fail to do so may find themselves in hot water with the Ukrainian authorities.
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian police and emergency services are also quite slow in responding to crimes and medical emergencies. There have been reports of individuals waiting for the arrival of police or ambulatory services for hours on end. For the most part, few of the country’s law enforcement, paramedics, or emergency phone operators speak English to any great extent. If visitors to the country do not speak Ukrainian or Russian, or have a companion who does, they should check their nation’s website in order to find an appropriate emergency contact number.
According to the US State Department, the threat of crime in Ukraine remains high, even though it has been decreasing over the past few years. Travelers should be aware that they will be readily identified as foreigners and are, therefore, more likely to be targeted by thieves and scam artists. However, crime committed against foreigners is largely nonviolent in nature. Pickpocketing and purse snatching tend to be the most common offenses and these occur most frequently on or around public transportation and in areas where foreigners are known to congregate.
Scams are also a crime frequently encountered by travelers visiting Ukraine. One of the most popular ploys is the so-called Wallet Scam. In this ruse, a criminal drops a wallet in front of a passerby who picks it up and attempts to return it to the individual who dropped it. After the wallet is returned, the criminal accuses the passerby of stealing money, forcing the victim to take out his own wallet, which the thief promptly snatches. There are several variants of this scam some involving individuals posing as police officers. Regardless of the variant, visitors can easily avoid this scam by simply not picking up anything dropped on the ground.
Another issue affecting visitors is the prevalence of hate crime. Ukraine harbors groups of neo-Nazi skinheads that have been known to target non-European looking individuals for mugging and assault. Religious minorities, particularly Jews, have also been the victims of these crimes. Unfortunately, the country’s law enforcement has a poor record of investigating and prosecuting the perpetrators of these deplorable acts. This situation is made even worse by reports of Ukrainian police standing by and watching while these attacks occur.
While ineffective law enforcement and street crime remain issues of concern, travelers should also be aware of the country’s volatile political environment. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was recently incarcerated and has begun a well-publicized hunger strike in protest. Because many believe her imprisonment to be politically motivated, the officials of several European countries have considered boycotting the competition in Ukraine, an action that could trigger repercussions for their citizens attending the games. Furthermore, visitors should be aware that the Championship is a high-profile event, and various political groups may feel the need to stage some type of spectacular protest. Although most protests in Ukraine are nonviolent, travelers should stay clear of any large demonstrations as a matter of precaution.
Although the political environment is troubling, visitors should be aware of other threats as well. For instance, it is best for travelers to avoid using ATM or credit cards in Ukraine except at the most reputable establishments. Credit card fraud is rampant throughout the country, and there have been many cases of foreigners having their card information stolen, often during seemingly legitimate and secure transactions. Travelers should also be vigilant if they choose to venture out onto the roadway. Ukrainian drivers are known to be erratic and traffic laws are frequently disregarded. Pedestrians should also be mindful of the fact that it is not uncommon for Ukrainians to drive on the sidewalk.
Travel to Ukraine certainly is not for everybody. Nevertheless, most of the crime affecting tourists is nonviolent in nature. If possible, it is best to travel with a trusted Ukrainian associate or friend. If this is not feasible, travelers should try to stay in groups and patronize only internationally recognized hotels and establishments. The staff at such outfits can often be invaluable to visitors unfamiliar with the area. It is also advisable for travelers to check the website of their home embassy for further information. There is no doubt that travel to Ukraine requires thorough preparation and may simply be too intimidating for some people. Yet, for the more adventurous, a trip to this old and proud Eastern European nation could prove a fun and exhilarating experience.