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How to stay safe when living abroad in London

Safety is always an important consideration when studying abroad. Local people often know of the risks and how to avoid them. As a foreign visitor, you may not be aware of the dangers, and you may be regarded as an easy victim. Mark Chandler offers some advice about ways to stay safe in London.

On the busy streets of London ...

... be on your guard

When you decide you want to study abroad, you will receive a lot of information from schools, tourist offices and agencies. You will read quotes from visitors talking about their wonderful experiences. But life isn't always like that: wherever you go there are always dangers. Learning about other people's bad experiences can help you to avoid trouble yourself. Here I will discuss some of the things you should know to stay safe in my home city, on the streets of London …

In a big city like London, please try to be careful with your money and valuables at all times. Make sure you are properly insured. Do not carry too much cash, especially when you first arrive. Find your local police station: ask them how to security mark your phone, camera, bicycle or other valuables, and write down their telephone number in case you need it. Thieves often work in gangs: while one or more of them distract your attention in some way, another member will steal your things. Don't draw their attention to you. Look confident, hold your bag securely in front of you, and keep money and valuables out of sight when you are not using them.

You should be especially alert in busy public places such as shopping streets, entertainment areas, stations or airports. JuHeon was walking along Oxford Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in London. "I was talking with my friend, carrying my things in a backpack. While I was walking, a police car suddenly drew up just behind me. Policemen rushed out of the car and forced some men behind me onto the ground. When I looked at my backpack I was shocked to discover that the zip had been opened. I kept my wallet, books and walkman there - but nothing had been stolen. I was very lucky - I had no idea what was happening!" JuHeon recommends visitors not to wear backpacks or listen to music while walking in busy areas.

JuHeon had a lucky escape…

… because the police were watching the thieves

You should also watch your things carefully in a pub or café. A Korean student told me about the experience of one of her classmates. "She was in a queue in a café. Suddenly a couple of men behind her tried to hug her. She was surprised at this, but she didn't want to shout out. While this was happening, another man took the mobile phone from her bag and ran away".

Ask local people to tell you where the dangerous areas are. The risks of being attacked are greater if you stay out late in pubs or clubs and go home alone in the dark. Avoid streets which are quiet and dark. Carry a personal alarm with you, and hold it in your hand when you do not feel safe. Mika told me about something that happened to her. "After going out I took a night bus with my friend - it was about 3 am. Then I noticed that I had made a mistake - we were travelling in the wrong direction. We got off the bus - we didn't realise this was a dangerous area. A man came up and asked what time it was. Suddenly he ordered us to give him our mobiles and purses. We refused, but he told us to open our bags and said that he had a knife. We held onto our things and said we had no money. Luckily he gave up and ran away laughing, shouting "I'm sorry, I was just joking". We were terrified."

A London "bobby"

Police station sign

Some areas are safer than others

People from many countries live in London. Most people are kind to foreigners and respect their different cultures. But at some time you will probably experience some form of racism. The most common source of trouble for foreign students is from groups of local teenage children. Chaeran remembers something that happened to her. "I was walking through a park with a few friends when we heard a group of children shouting Chinese-sounding words (children often assume all oriental people are Chinese) - they even threw a few small stones towards us. I didn't really feel threatened - they were quite far from us, and we were in a group - but I was embarrassed and felt angry afterwards". What advice would Chaeran give to other students? "Normally I think the best thing to do is to ignore them and leave the place. If they keep following you, then say some bad word in your language - people say this sounds more threatening than if you try to say something in English".

When you start studying abroad, you may feel lonely at first and be keen to make new friends quickly, but do not forget to be careful when you meet strangers. Women should be especially cautious. Do not feel that you have to give your own details when someone asks for them. If you don't want to be contacted, most British men would prefer you to refuse clearly but politely, instead of lying or giving false numbers or addresses. It is useful to create a second e-mail account and give this address to people you don't know well. If you arrange to meet up, make sure that you stay in public places at first, and take a friend with you or let someone know where you are going.

Only get into someone's car if you know and trust that person, especially if you are alone. Never agree if a man comes up to you and asks if you need a taxi. How can you be sure that he won't drive you to a quiet place and attack you? Instead, get a London taxi (a "black cab") from a taxi rank, from the street, or by telephone. You can ask the driver to wait until you have entered your house if it is dark and you feel scared.

A typical London "black cab"

A personal alarm keyring

Please don't feel scared about coming to London. Most people do not have any problems. Hopefully I have made you think about how to look after yourself and reduce the risks. If you do have trouble, make sure that you report it. Don't be afraid to ask for help, for example from the police, your school or your friends.

You can find more information in my website UK Student Life. I have created this website to help people who study abroad in Britain. Please come here and enjoy yourself. But be careful out there on the streets …

Mark Chandler
UK Student Life:

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