A nightmare scenario: first an employee working overseas doesn't turn up one morning, then a ransom note does … suddenly the BBC is at the door, you're on the phone to the Foreign Office and the life of a colleague is in the balance. How can you stop this happening?
When British engineer Tim Selby disappeared in Bangladesh in February this year, he was the latest client of a dynamic £350m industry: kidnapping. Even worse was the fact that the Chittagong Hills area where Selby, a 28-year-old road safety specialist with Babtie Ross Silcock, was grabbed was described at the time as relatively safe by Foreign Office.

Two years on from the abduction and murder of British workers in Chechnya and tourists in the Yemen, Selby's abduction was a stark reminder of the risks faced by the tens of thousands of British workers abroad. The Kidnapping Business, a report by think tank the Foreign Policy Centre published in April, a month after Selby's release, highlights the increased risk of abduction in developing countries. Whereas, in the past, it was possible to take extra precautions in areas where there was political unrest, the main motivation for kidnappers now is economic opportunism. As the report points out, where the political image of a group is not at stake, hostages tend to be treated worse – and killed if the ransom is not forthcoming.

UK construction firms have a history of working on aid-funded infrastructure and utilities projects in sometimes unstable developing countries. The companies best placed to minimise risks to staff are civil engineering outfits with long-established overseas offices staffed by locals. They have an excellent knowledge of the situation on the ground. "All the major contracting businesses, which have the largest numbers of expatriate employees, have smart internal protocols to ensure to safety," says Oliver Jones, chief executive of consultant Citex. However, the globalisation of markets means that more UK contractors and consultants are taking their first steps into "emerging" markets. In this climate, the need for strategies to deal with risk, and for insurance provision, has never been greater.

There is, of course, a spectrum of risk. At one extreme are the countries whose political regime makes them flat-out no-go areas – examples are Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria. Then there are areas where endemic political and drug-related violence pose unacceptable risk – such as Colombia, where there were 3162 kidnappings last year, and to a lesser extent Nigeria and Russia.

But in many countries afflicted by simmering political and ethnic tensions, the dangers are harder to call. Just how dangerous is it to work in states such as India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Israel, Malaysia, Cambodia and Burma? Low-intensity conflicts have flared up recently in all these regions, ranging from urban terrorism to guerilla warfare. The answer is:

it is a close call, and fast judgment is required.

Stuart Colwill is the overseas director of public transport specialist Transport Research Laboratory. His employee Dave Weston was kidnapped with Tim Selby, but quickly released to deliver the ransom note. He sums up the dilemma: "The extraordinary thing is the extremes you get in every country. There are many British companies in southern Sri Lanka, where we send our cricket team to play test matches, while 200 miles away in the north one of the most vicious conflicts in the world is raging. It is the same in many developing countries."

So how can UK firms minimise and manage the daily risks to which staff are exposed? Most firms refer to the Foreign Office or US State Department website for country-by-country risk assessments. But more and more are employing corporate risk consultants such as British firm Control Risks Group, Rag, Pinkerton's or Kroll in the USA to give an in-depth insight into political stability, business risks and organised crime.

Citex recently took advice from a corporate risk consultant before taking on a job in Israel. Jones says: "We had a day-long briefing about the relative threats posed by Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the need for contingency planning had Ariel Sharon not got into power, the degree of volatility in different areas and the dos and don'ts, like avoiding public open markets and bus stations."

Companies should manage risk, but it comes down to relying on the common sense of individuals

Stuart Colwill, Transport Research Laboratory

Jones stresses that Citex's primary concern is the safe conduct of staff: "We ensure that an individual is equipped to anticipate the environment on the ground and adapts his or her behaviour; we don't want someone immature business-wise who will exacerbate problems." Colwill agrees. "Companies should have risk management policies, but it comes down to relying on the common sense of individuals."

A QS from Currie & Brown knows this from experience – he had his drink spiked in Kuala Lumpur and woke up to find his computer and money gone, says David Mitchell, its international operations director. Mitchell agrees that staff bound for overseas postings need a certain level of street savvy to avoid opportunistic muggings.

Control Risks Group offers awareness training for minimising risks in danger spots. A spokesperson says it offers visitors to high-risk areas the following advice: don't take the same route to work, vary the times you leave, don't drive after dark, look out for loiterers, don't get talking to strangers and go off to parties.

What happens when crisis strikes? Most firms with extensive operations in developing countries take out kidnap and ransom insurance, although, understandably, clauses in the policy stipulate non-disclosure, so they will not admit to it. Typical premiums paid by transnationals are £1m a year, with the £150m UK market for this type of insurance rising at a rate of 20% a year.

Others put in place back-up operations – consultant Symonds buys support from a UK-based 24-hour emergency helpline, which provides medical and evacuation support. Others cater for contingencies in-house: Geoff French, managing director of civil engineer Scott Wilson, says: "We'd touch base with the relevant authorities and establish a central point to deal with press queries, which we'd try to keep away from the employee's family."

However, the Selby incident illustrates that firms' risk management strategies can never offer perfect security, and that a more co-ordinated approach from government and business is needed to combat the threats. The Kidnapping Business moots the establishment of a UK security network, where government departments and agencies, businesses and non-governmental organisations pool their knowledge and experience of different regions.

Mitchell of Currie & Brown supports this idea. "Feedback from companies that have had to deal with cases of kidnapping would be invaluable," he says. The report also suggests that the government draw up health and safety guidelines for UK firms working overseas – an idea that many doubt will work. "An advisory structure would be a good idea in principle, but the risks vary so much from country to country it would be difficult to enforce," says Scott Wilson's French. "Unless they can keep the information very up-to-date and pertinent, they will be saying a place is dangerous long after it is safe. If they get it wrong or out of date, people will stop believing it at all."

Tim Selby’s story

Tim Selby, 28, was working for British engineering consultant Babtie Ross Silcock on a road maintenance contract in Bangladesh. On 16 February, he was kidnapped at gunpoint in the Chittagong Hills in the south-east of the country. The kidnappers said they were from the United Democratic Front, a group that had been fighting for a generation for autonomy from the governing Bengalis. “It was our understanding that, since a 1997 peace accord, the trouble had finished there,” says Selby. “But when we got to Bangladesh it was close to election time and there were reports of shootings, deaths and general strikes in the papers every day.” Selby began to feel uneasy when he arrived at the remote site where he was to work. The local manager from Kampsax, the main contractor, had arranged for Selby and his colleagues to be accompanied by six soldiers. One day, the escort was not available. Says Selby: “If you say to the boss ‘I couldn’t do the work because there was no armed protection’ it starts getting surreal. It may seem foolish but other people had gone without it and been fine.” He and two Danish colleagues were abducted from their jeep and marched through the jungle for a month. Selby says one captor claimed the kidnappers were politically motivated, but their demand was for $10m. Selby and his two colleagues were freed on 17 March after what the Bangladeshis claimed was a gun battle, but other sources described as a prearranged deal. Selby, who has since joined WSP, feels his former employer could have done more to ensure his safety. “I was disappointed to find out afterwards that there had been a number of abductions on that road in the 12 months previously. I had not had any training in crisis management,” he says. “We always joked about it happening but never imagined it would. The only insurance the firm had taken out covers medical treatment and belongings, not my life. People should have a right to be insured for kidnap and ransom.” Alec Macdonald, managing director of environmental technology at Babtie Group, refused to comment on the firm’s kidnap and ransom insurance cover but pointed out that, at the time, the Foreign Office did not regard Bangladesh as a high-risk area. “We understood that in certain areas it was advised that they did not take an army escort, to avoid attracting unwelcome attention.” But he said the firm had since reviewed its risk management strategy and had held discussions with specialist crisis management firm Control Risks Group. ”The main lesson is that there needs to be even tighter control over safety and to reinforce key aspects of international working to individuals,” Macdonald said. Macdonald added that although Babtie accepted responsibility for the safety of its staff working overseas, direct control of working procedures on the ground in Bangladesh on the job Selby was working on, such as the need for an army escort, was up to project manager Kampsax .