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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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Malawi 2019 Crime & Safety Report

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Malawi at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Exercise increased caution in rural areas due to sporadic civil unrest.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

Please review OSAC’s Malawi page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Crime Threats

There is serious risk from crime in Lilongwe. Malawi presents a crime and safety situation consistent with many impoverished and developing countries. As the country continues to address ongoing economic issues, crime remains a serious concern. Pickpockets and purse snatchers often loiter near bus stations, marketplaces, shopping centers, and restaurants. Few problems have occurred at Malawian airports, but you should still maintain heightened awareness.

Most hotels are safe, but less reputable accommodations can be less secure. Do not leave valuables in hotel rooms. Exercise caution when using in-room safes, even in higher-end properties; many are not anchored securely or have been compromised.

Be mindful of vehicle robbery, carjacking, residential burglary, armed robbery, and home invasion. Criminals tend to work in groups of 5-15 people, most commonly carry panga knives (machetes), and sometimes carry a firearm. Criminals are quick to use violence if victims do not meet their demands; compliance is usually the best course of action to avoid personal injury when confronted by an armed assailant. Expatriates have been victims of violent crime, but generally do not appear to be specifically targeted.

Criminal activity is more common in urban areas than in rural areas. Neighborhood policing efforts have aided in crime prevention and reporting, but have not substantially decreased criminal activity. The Embassy is aware of several incidents of mob justice resulting in fatalities, even within major city limits. These incidents often occur a result of public distrust and lack of confidence in the Malawi Police Services.

Single-family homes and compounds are frequent targets of property crime; residential home invasions are not uncommon. If feasible, create and use a residential safe haven or secured room. Hire a residential guard and install an alarm system with a reputable company that has an established response capability.

Other Areas of Concern

Malawi's porous borders are ripe for exploitation; they have facilitated human trafficking rings, drug trafficking, illegal migration, and other cross-border criminal activity. Malawi is an illegal transit route for passage from other African countries en route to South Africa.

Transportation-Safety Situation

For more information, review OSAC’s report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Road Safety and Road Conditions

One of the greatest safety risks when visiting Malawi is the potential for a traffic accident. If a road accident occurs away from an urban area, there is little chance of a timely emergency medical response. The majority of the vehicles on the road are not roadworthy, and often lack basic safety features (e.g. brake lights, turn signals, headlights). Overloading of vehicles is common and affects speed, the ability to stop, and maneuverability. Many drivers operate their vehicles with no regard for traffic laws.

The roads are in poor condition. Most of the roadways, except for major thoroughfares, are not paved, leading to accessibility problems during the rainy season. Asphalt roads often lack a shoulder and are crumbling at the edges; breakdowns and accidents are rarely cleared from the roadway and present additional hazards. Seasonal heavy rains result in washouts, sinkholes, and potholes. In this densely-populated country, the roads are also congested with people, cattle, goats, and cyclists carrying heavy loads. Almost all roadways are not illuminated at night. Strictly limited vehicle travel at night to major urban areas; even then, exercise caution not only due to other drivers and pedestrians, but also because of criminal elements. Plan all in-country travel so as to arrive at your destination before dark. For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s reports, Driving Overseas: Best Practices and Road Safety in Africa.

Vehicle robberies are not uncommon, even in daylight hours. Criminals often target victims when a vehicle stops at an intersection or in a residential driveway. Keep vehicle windows rolled up and doors locked. Examine vehicle-locking mechanisms on a regular basis for signs of tampering. Robbers have damaged locking mechanisms on the doors of parked cars surreptitiously in order to negate the use of a key fob to lock and unlock the vehicle. This method targets vehicles that routinely park in the same general area on a daily basis.

Public Transportation Conditions

Avoid use of public transportation. Public transportation is extremely limited and unreliable. It primarily consists of private citizens driving independently, and unregulated passenger vans in varying but generally poor states of condition and repair. These vehicles are frequently overburdened, and the drivers are inexperienced and untrained. In the cities, public transport includes bicycle taxis or small, motorized tricycles; each is unsafe.

Terrorism Threat

There is minimal risk from terrorism in Lilongwe.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

There is minimal risk from political violence in Lilongwe. Public discontent with economic problems (e.g. power cuts, food insecurity, fuel shortages, inflation) and perceived poor governance exists. Many security issues are the result of the poor state of the economy, which saw high inflation ease but unemployment persist in 2018. Public protests occurred throughout 2018 and affected residents and visitors alike. Even though protests have generally been peaceful with no resulting fatalities, political demonstrations can quickly become violent. In the run-up to the May 2019 national elections, political demonstrations may increase in size and intensity. 

Post-specific Concerns

Critical Infrastructure

Malawi’s infrastructure is underdeveloped. Water shortages can occur, especially during the dry season (May through October). Electricity is generally limited to the larger cities, and power outages are frequent.

Personal Identity Concerns

Homosexuality is regarded as taboo, and openly identifiable LGBTQ persons can be subject to harassment and hostility. Although the government has maintained its moratorium on enforcement of anti-sodomy laws, those accused may still be subject to arrest.

Individuals with albinism have been attacked in the rural areas. The Government of Malawi is actively engaged in a campaign to protect individuals with albinism, though its limited capacity has failed to deter many attacks.

From mid-October to the end of November 2017, rampant rumors of magical “bloodsuckers” stealing the blood of local residences spread through word of mouth and social media in the rural villages of Mulanje, the surrounding areas up to and including rural Zomba, and suburban Blantyre. As a result, vigilante violence against travelers and other individuals perceived as outsiders resulted in seven confirmed deaths, multiple injuries, and significant property damage. Though reports of violence have stopped, similar black magic rumors and associated vigilante violence reemerge periodically. 

Police Response

Crime Victim Assistance

The capabilities of the Malawi Police Service are growing, but its abilities to deter and investigate crimes, assist victims, and apprehend criminals are extremely limited. The police lack basic equipment (particularly transportation), are poorly funded, and do not receive sufficient training. Public support for the police has continued to drop, due in part to alleged corruption and ineffectiveness in deterring criminal activity.

Crime Victim Assistance

U.S. victims or suspects of a crime should contact the local police and U.S. Embassy Lilongwe, or inform the police of your citizenship and ask them to contact the Embassy on your behalf.

The police emergency number 990 is the easiest means of obtaining police assistance. The 24-hour phone number for the national police headquarters in Lilongwe is 01-796-333. The phone number for the Lilongwe Central Police Station is 01-753-333, and the Blantyre Central Police Station is 01-623-333. These are office numbers not capable of dispatching any police units.

Police/Security Agencies

The Malawi Police Service is the national law enforcement authority.

Medical Emergencies

Medical facilities lack resources and are not comparable with those in the U.S. Many rural areas have no access to nearby medical care.

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

For medical assistance, refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

Insurance Guidance

Strongly consider purchasing international medical evacuation (medevac) insurance, and keep the contact information with you at all times. In the event that a medical evacuation is necessary, those without insurance may have to pay US$45,000-$95,000 just to initiate the process. For more information, refer to OSAC’s report, Medical Evacuation: A Primer.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Begin and maintain appropriate malaria prophylaxis prior to and throughout your time in Malawi. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Malawi.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Country Council in Lilongwe meets quarterly. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Africa team with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

U.S. Embassy Lilongwe is located in the City Centre district of Lilongwe, loosely bordered by the major arteries of Presidential Way, Kenyatta Drive, and Africa Unity Drive. Physical addresses are not regularly used and are a poor means of locating the compound.

U.S. Embassy Lilongwe, Area 40, Plot 24, 16 Kenyatta Drive, Lilongwe

Embassy Contact Numbers

+265-1-773-166 or +265-1-773-342

Website: https://mw.usembassy.gov/

Routine services for U.S. citizens are available by appointment with limited availability for walk-in services on Tuesday and Thursday morning from 0800 to 1100. Schedule appointments online. Individuals seeking more specific information can call +265 (1) 773-166 during regular working hours. The Consular Email address is LilongweConsular@state.gov.

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens are encouraged to register with the Consular Section via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

Additional Resources

Malawi Country-Specific Information

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