Kidnapping Danger in the Southern Philippines

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Even the most experienced travelers are ignoring warnings about the risk (and seriousness) of kidnapping in the south of the Philippines at their own peril. Here's what you need to know.

Stilt houses in the Zamboanga Peninsula of the Philippines Photo © Getty Images/Joel Gerone Larupay / EyeEm

Be warned, you'll be taking a huge risk if you ignore warnings about the dangers of foreigners being kidnapped in these areas of the Philippines.

When does a Philippines adventure become too risky?

Back in February 2012 three foreign nationals on an adventure trip in the far south of the country were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf – officially known by ISIL as the Islamic State which operates in the East Asia Province. Kidnappings by this criminal/terror group often do not end well.

Ransom is one of the methods used by Abu Sayyaf to fund their long-running campaign for an independent Muslim state in this part of the predominantly Christian country, and they don't care how long they have to hold their captive until they get paid. Australian man Warren Rodwell, who was not a tourist but lived in the region with his Filipina wife, was taken just before Christmas 2011. He was finally released in June 2013. There's been no comment on whether the two million dollar ransom was paid in full, in part, or not at all.

Back to the foreign travelers in February 2012. According to local authorities the men were traveling between remote islands in the Tawi-Tawi group to capture images of rare birds. They were spotted by gang members in a passing motorboat. They stopped them and took them captive at gun point. An unlucky encounter, or a calculated risk gone bad?

The danger to foreigners in this region is well known. Most governments tell their citizens not to go there under any circumstances.

There‘s evidence they were also warned about the risk by local authorities. Tawi-Tawi Governor Sadikul Sahali told The Associated Press he sent along a town council member and an off-duty police officer because the foreigners had refused an armed escort.

There must have been a big incentive to go to this notoriously dangerous region, maybe bragging rights at the bird watching club, or more likely, big money from wildlife magazines for shots of a rare Sulu Hornbill? Maybe they calculated they didn‘t want an armed escort because a Marlboro-smoking goon with an AK-47 scares the birds away just before you press the shutter button.

  • Do not travel to the Sulu Archipelago or Marawi City in Mindanao due to crime and the threat of kidnapping
  • Travel carefully elsewhere in Mindanao due to civil unrest within the area.

Click here to see the British Foreign Office map of travel advice for Philippines. Take note of the red and orange regions of the map to be aware of the areas where you should avoid traveling to.

Avoiding danger and unacceptable risk in the Philippines

It might seem like a big adventure to go to less-traveled parts, but it is important not to let your sense of adventure blind you to the real risks. Those travel warnings are in place for a reason. Plus, local knowledge is always best, if the provincial governor wants you to take an armed escort, listen to him.

But in the end it‘s up to each person to make their own call on the level of risk they‘re prepared to accept. These photographers deliberately put themselves in harm‘s way, went to a region where kidnapping is a real risk, where they know it will be extremely unlikely they‘ll be able to get emergency assistance of any kind. Would you be surprised to learn there‘s no way a regular travel insurance policy would cover them, and their home governments are powerless to help? No, me neither.

There are some amazing things to lure the adventurous to this region. Whether it's a pristine beach surrounded by clear blue waters, or a rare Sulu Hornbill bird. But, you have to ask yourself: is it worth the risk?

How to survive a kidnapping

The first minutes

Avoiding being kidnapped is clearly the best option, so in these initial, very chaotic moments lies your best chance to escape the situation, but you’ll have to act fast.

After you’re captured

Once the kidnappers have asserted control, resistance could get you killed. Passive compliance is the safest option. You may be beaten or drugged to impose control. Remember you are valuable to them only if you’re alive, they intend to subdue you not kill you at this stage.

Do not threaten or insult your captors. Remain dignified – your captors will be reluctant to harm someone they perceive as a decent human.

Try to keep track of time (watch shadows on the wall, or listen to sounds outside). Use this to establish a schedule of regular events; it may be handy as part of an escape plan.

Keep mentally alert by doing math problems in your head, or playing word games. Hold imaginary conversations with friends and family.

Keep physically alert by doing regular exercise. It will help your emotional state and keep you fit in case an opportunity to escape presents itself.

Should you try to escape?

Futile attempts at escape will only result in you being more strictly guarded or controlled, making further attempts impossible. By observing your situation closely you may be able to devise a successful escape attempt. Plan for that and wait until the time is right.

When rescue comes

This is possibly the most dangerous moment for you.  There will be confusion, chaos and very tense heavily-armed people all around you. Do not run. Seek shelter from your captors and your rescuers, lie on the floor with your hands on your head. If you are standing or seated, cross your arms over your chest and keep your head bowed.

Cooperate with instructions from your rescuers – even if they mistake you for a kidnapper, the real situation will be revealed after the confusion ends.

Listen to The World Nomads Podcast: the Philippines

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  • William said


    Your article is quite informative, thank you.

    I have a question, I will be travelling to the Philippines in December going to the Cebu area and possibly the island of Siquijor, since they are close to northern Mindanao and Zamboanga Peninsula, do you know of any instances of problems for tourists (ie: kidnapping, terrorism) in those areas? There is a ferry that goes to Siquijor and was wondering if you heard of know of any issues in regards to pirates in that area. The Australian gov’t posted ‘Recent attacks have also created concerns that these groups have the capability to target locations frequented by tourists in southern Palawan, southern Negros or Siquijor’ . I am aware of the risks when travelling and of course nothing can be guaranteed but wanted your opinion.

    Thank you.

  • PhilSylvester said

    Hi William,
    sorry for taking so long to get back to you.
    We have a Q&A forum where these questions get answered more quickly and by more people than just me. go to
    I haven't seen any reports about pirates or kidnapping there. All the reports say it's a pretty safe place. But that's only anecdotal evidence. I've got nothing hard evidence-wise.
    Go over to answers, there's bound to be someone who's been there recently.

  • karl pyatt said

    Hello i am traveling to manila and laguna and aklan province in november are these places safe also is zamboanga safe too .thankyou in advance for your advice

  • Mike said

    From UK. Have visited Mindanao a few times. At Kidapawan bus terminal, waiting for a van to Davao, had to wait for the next one. The dispatcher made a phone call; a plain-clothed policeman turned up, hurriedly. Chatted to me most of the way; obviously assigned for security. He jumped out at first Police station in Davao, just after we crossed the security screening, on the road, at the city border force. Kidapawan also has checkpoints, Police and Military, on the highway.

  • Lyn said

    Are Digos and Davao safe places to go?

  • Aaron said

    Wife's family is in Isabela City, Basilan. We want to visit but...

    My Filipina wife's family lives in Isabela City, Basilan. We want to visit but we are very concerned about the risks involved. Any recommendations on the travel to Basilan, getting around the city, and hopefully staying as unnoticed as possible would be great.

    Would it just be safer to fly her entire family out to see us in another like Cebu?

    (FYI - recaptcha is not working on your Q/A page.)

  • Nick Fecou said

    Travel from UK to Kibawe in Mindanao to visit fiancées family. They say there is no problems in the area but would really like to hear experiences from anybody that's been around that area thanks.

  • Bob said

    simply jumping in the water saved half the people in N. Samal

  • diggglype said

    hi. i am new user
    and i would to ask community, most powerful forum engine is?
    mybb etc? thanks digg

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