Arrest or Detention in a Foreign Country

What should you do if you’re arrested or detained in a foreign country?  The first decisions you make are crucial so try to seek legal advice quickly.

Quirks of travel can inadvertently land you in some dodgy situations.When I was an active crewmember, I could always count on my employer to get me out of legal jams away from home.  Of course, I had an obligation to act responsibly but knowing that a colleague or head office had my back was reassuring.

Laws & procedures dealing with body searches or searches of personal belongings vary from country to country. While you must usually submit to customs or immigration searches, if they go beyond reasonable expectations for safety or security or are associated with arrest and detention, you should seek legal advice from a local lawyer or Canadian consular officials.

Vienna Convention for Travellers

Signatory countries, (currently 173), to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations are obligated to permit an arrested or detained foreign citizen to contact and communicate with consular officials from their country of citizenship. If you have been arrested or detained, signatory countries are also obligated to inform you of your right to contact said consular officials, assist you in making contact with consular officials if you request and ensure that consular officials are able to maintain regular contact or indirect contract with you as needed.

Though the convention states that these obligations should be carried out “without delay,” interpretation of this standard varies by country, so you should try to ensure that it is done promptly.

Your rights in a foreign country

Your right to contact consular officials is independent of your right to retain a local lawyer. In some instances, countries initially restrict arrested or detained persons to making one contact call. If so, you should contact consular officials first and have them arrange a lawyer. If you do contact a lawyer first, instruct the lawyer to contact consular officials on your behalf.

How will consular services help?

At your request, consular services can

  • Gather information about your case and urge authorities to process without undue delay.
  • Provide a list of local lawyers who have expertise in your type of case, speak your language and have represented Canadians in the past.
  • Provide you with information about Legal Aid in the country detaining you if you cannot afford a lawyer.
  • Facilitate communications between you and your lawyer.
  • Contact your family or friends to ask them to send you money and or let them know how they can help you.
  • Arrange for the purchase of necessary food, essential clothing, medical treatment and other items or services not available through the prison system at your expense and if permitted.
  • Provide you with general information about the country detaining you and its justice system and take steps to ensure that you receive equitable treatment are not penalized for being a foreigner.
  • Deliver mail and provide permitted reading material of postal services are unavailable.
  • Convey messages to you if postal or telephone services are unavailable.
  • Attempt to locate any missing personal property.

What consular services will not do

Consular assistance will not provide legal service, post bail, pay fines or legal fees, or recommend a specific lawyer.

Consular Contact Information

If you are arrested or detained while in a foreign country, you are entitled to urgent assistance from the Canadian Embassy, High Commission or Consulate responsible for that country. You can call the Consular Affairs Bureau in Ottawa  at 1-613 -996-8885. These calls are free and services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in the United States, call 1-800-267-6788. You should make every effort to obtain access to consular services and a lawyer before making any statement to foreign authorities.

For more information on how to enjoy any trip, download my eBook Travel Like a Flight Attendant. It’s filled with money-saving travel tips and advice I learned from my thirty years (and twenty million air miles) as a crew member.

Happy travels!