Detention and arrest

This advice deals with what to do if you are officially detained or arrested

Prior to travel

It important that you know your rights in the country where you are going and what could happen if you break local laws. The right to remain silent and to be assisted by a competent and independent lawyer of your choice may not be the case where you are travelling.

Have a checking in plan and leave a plan of what to do if you disappear, with names and phone numbers in the order that you want them to be called.

If you are arrested


  • Why were you arrested?
  • Will anyone realise that you are missing?
  • Are you likely to be harmed
  • Can you contact anyone?
  • Do you know anyone of influence? Can they assist you?
  • Do you have any rights and if so how can you use them?

Policemen and security forces do not like people who try to take charge, make them look stupid or who are not respectful. It does not matter what you think, make them think they are in charge and they are doing you a favour.

  • Be polite, compliant and smile if appropriate
  • Stand your ground if you can and it will not harm your cause. If you are asked to do something you are not prepared to do, then try to reason with them
  • Show documentation when asked for it

If held in prison

  • Try to keep your morale high and stay positive
  • Ask to see the doctor as soon as you arrive, so that you can start taking any medication required for any bad living conditions, e.g., malaria, diarrhea etc
  • Keep healthy and clean and ensure you remain hygienic at all times
  • Ask for things to make your life easier. Befriend a guard
  • Ensure you eat and drink everything given to you even if it makes you sick as it is important not to become dehydrated
  • Some prisons will allow visitors to bring in food and water. If this is the case, then ensure someone does this, as this will make a difference

Embassies can assist if you are arrested or held in prison

If you are arrested in a foreign country, you must get news out that you have been arrested and where you are and by whom you are being held.

Ask to speak to someone in your embassy or consulate. It is your right under international agreements to receive assistance from your government. This may of course be easier said than done. So, be polite but insistent, and keep asking until you are placed into contact with an official of your own or another foreign government. Tell the police whether you want to be visited by staff from the embassy or consulate. Embassies generally will not lend you money, and it should be your employer who phones your Ministry of Foreign Affairs to report an arrest abroad.

Embassy officials can, however, provide:

Legal assistance 

The embassy cannot ensure that you will be released or receive preferential treatment. But it can help you find:

  • A lawyer. The embassy will not pay for the lawyer. It may ask your employer for money to pay for legal assistance

  • Information about the country’s judicial system, such as how long you may be kept in custody awaiting trial, whether you can be released on bail and how you can appeal

  • An interpreter
  • Information about whether it is possible to serve your sentence in your home country

Contact with home 

The embassy will, if you wish, keep in touch with your colleagues/family and inform them of your arrest and the legal system in the country. It will do so via a person of your choice, and you may wish this to be your editor.

Assistance in prison

Every prison has its own rules, including rules governing correspondence with family and friends. The embassy or consulate can explain how the visiting system works and what rules apply to parcels. The embassy or consulate cannot send packages to the prison on the family’s behalf.

Complaints about detention 

The embassy or consulate can only complain to the prison on your behalf if you are being treated worse than your fellow inmates. If that is the case, the embassy will – after discussions with you – insist that you be treated humanely. If your human rights are being violated – for instance if you are being tortured – your embassy will hold the country detaining you responsible. However in some countries, this will not make much difference.

Assistance if you fall ill during detention

If you have an illness, then you must insist on seeing a doctor. If you have a medical problem for which you require regular medication, you should inform the prison doctor and the embassy. The embassy will inform the prison doctor of your medical problems. It can also help you obtain additional medication. You will have to pay for the medication yourself.