Breaking the law abroad

Abiding by the law in a foreign country can be a controversial topic. Is it right for an expat couple to be jailed for having sex outside of marriage in the UAE, for example? Is that not their own business, or should they have been respectful of their host country’s laws? Knowing the laws is not always as simple as it seems, and accepting them when they clash with your own personal values can be even harder.

Sometimes, it’s extremely obvious

Take the example of the British couple back in 2008, who were jailed for having sex on Jumeirah beach in Dubai. It’s not difficult to assume that in a highly religious and conservative country, getting drunk and having sex in a public space is not going to go down well with the authorities.

To make matters worse, Michelle Palmer, one of the two arrested, had been living in Dubai for two years already, making it pretty difficult for her to feign ignorance of the country’s culture. And ultimately, whether we agree with the punishment or not, having sex in public is disrespectful no matter where you are in the world.

Other times it’s a little trickier

Let’s return to the couple arrested for having sex outside of marriage. Here, their sex life was kept in a private space, so surely it should remain private. The only reason they were caught was because a doctor discovered that the woman was pregnant- does that not bring up the question of doctor-patient confidentiality?

Unfortunately, their national governments have no right to overrule the arrest, but here we have an example of an attempt to regulate private behaviour that arguably has no directly harmful effect on society.

Then it just gets bizarre

Then there are the times when doing something that seems beyond normal can get you into trouble. Driving a dirty car in Russia, for example. Using cold-relieving products containing pseudoephedrine in Japan. And think twice before trying to chew gum in Singapore, because you will be arrested. I kid you not.

Surely an innocent traveller can be excused for breaking such a law? When you’re planning a two week break abroad, you’re more likely to be focusing on whether you’ve got the right adaptor, than checking the legality of breaking out a pack of Wrigley’s Extra. And even if you’re moving to a country, knowing about such an absurd law will inevitably take time.

A little bit of push and pull

This is not to say that we should be able to break whatever laws we want. Open defiance of your host country’s laws just because you don’t agree with them is highly disrespectful and reflects poorly on your own nation. But sometimes laws are so obscure that they can be broken without even knowing it. In the end, foreigners need to be mindful when travelling or moving, but there should also be a degree of flexibility where laws are not blindingly obvious.

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