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

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Eritrea 2019 Crime & Safety Report

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Eritrea at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to travel restrictions, limited consular assistance, and landmines.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Embassy in Asmara 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.

Review OSAC’s Eritrea-specific 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 considerable risk from crime in Asmara. Obtaining official crime statistics for Eritrea is difficult. Most of the Embassy's reports regarding specific crimes originate from other diplomatic missions, international organizations, and foreign business expatriates with whom U.S. diplomats share a cordial relationship.

Walking the streets of Asmara during the daytime (from 0600-2000) is safe. The downtown area of Asmara is generally populated from morning until midnight. Asmara is a very active city during the night. People can walk around fairly freely, although the Embassy advises avoiding venturing onto isolated streets late at night so as to avoid encounters with youth gangs, intoxicated individuals, and emotionally disturbed persons (EDPs). The Embassy is unaware of any major criminal activity aside from petty theft and harassment from EDPs. EDPs have been known to assault Eritreans and foreigners alike.

Although crime is present, particularly at certain hours and in certain locations, Asmara is generally safer than many capital cities. There are dozens of neighborhoods and shopping areas throughout Asmara that attract residents and visitors alike and, therefore, petty criminals. Pickpockets and purse/bag snatchers are a cause of concern. Although previously rare, women are increasingly found to be involved in such thefts, which usually occur in crowded areas such as bus stops, stadiums, movie theatres, market places, and even places of worship. The Embassy has received reports of Eritreans and Westerners assaulted and robbed while walking late at night.

Crime is generally higher in the early morning hours and in areas with high bar/club concentrations (i.e. the Expo Center and downtown area). Some bars stay open until 0500. Disturbances/fights are not uncommon on weekends; youth gangs are indiscriminate in who they target. Women walking alone during these hours are particularly vulnerable. Over the past few years, Westerners reported five instances of assault. In the most severe case, a Western female was returning to her home at night when two men violently attacked her; kicking and punching repeatedly, and demanding she hand over her phone and money. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad.

Crime also tends to be higher during the summer, when a large number of Eritreans from the diaspora visit, and during the Christmas and New Year holiday season. In June, when schools are about to close for the summer, instances of group fighting, bar brawls, and hooliganism tend to rise. Crime tends to be lower from April to June – a period in which security is tight due to Independence Day celebrations on May 24.

While homicides do occur, they often involve perpetrators known to the victim (e.g. land disputes, crimes of passion, and domestic issues). Sexual assaults usually involve individuals known to the victim or situations where the use of drugs or alcohol plays a factor. However, the occasional homicide has occurred as the result of an assault or robbery against strangers; these incidents are generally opportunistic and typically occur in the early morning hours. The Embassy has no specific knowledge of homicide or sexual assault committed against persons in the expatriate or diplomatic community.

Financial scams are rare. Eritrea lacks ATMs and is virtually a cash-only economy. Very few businesses accept credit cards.

Vehicle break-ins are common, but vehicle theft occurs rarely. Incidents of stolen vehicles are usually isolated to joyriding. The Embassy recommends using vehicle alarms and other visual deterrents, such as steering wheel locks.

Residential crime ebbs and flows. Over the past few years, there have been a number of reported break-ins and burglaries of expatriate residences. In one case, a suspect broke into a home, held a female expatriate at knifepoint, and stole personal belongings.

Other Areas of Concern

The Eritrean government restricts the travel of foreigners outside of Asmara via a 2006 decree. While it has granted many requests to travel to Keren, Mendefera, and Massawa, access is not guaranteed. Travel permits are very specific, and do not allow for side trips/deviations. Would-be travelers must request and receive specific approval to access religious and other significant sites.

There are landmines in many remote areas in Eritrea, particularly in Nakfa, AdiKeih, Arezza, the 25 mile-wide region (40 km) between the Setit and Mereb Rivers, and in areas north and west of Keren, areas near Massawa, Ghinda, Agordat, Barentu, Dekemhare, and south of Tessenae.

Exercise caution when taking photographs in Eritrea. Individuals taking photos of military or government installations can face a warning, harassment, confiscation of the phone/camera, arrest, detention, or interrogation. Do not take photos of Eritreans without their permission. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don'ts for Photography.

Certain remote Eritrean islands have military facilities and are not accessible to tourists.

Transportation-Safety Situation

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

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Asmara is on a plateau. The roads leading to the city are dangerously steep, curving, and narrow, with most in poor condition and with minimal/no guardrails. Roads are frequently littered with rocks and debris.

Driving is challenging. Drivers often do not observe rules of the road. It is not uncommon to find vehicles stopped in active traffic lanes. The causes for vehicular accidents are predominately speeding, driving under the influence, not observing traffic rules, and bad road and vehicle conditions. Trucks hauling products from Massawa sometimes lack regular maintenance due to the expense and lack of spare parts; drivers tend to improvise repairs. Thick fog is also common during certain times of the year. A significant amount of travel is on precarious roads, where fog and haphazard driving result in a number of fatalities each year. Defensive driving is imperative. Recently reopened land border crossings with Ethiopia have resulted in an increase in vehicles on Eritrean roads.  Trucks are heavily laden with goods, and many drivers tend to exceed speed limits and ignore local traffic norms.

The biggest hazard is non-vehicular traffic in the roadway (e.g. pedestrians, persons in wheelchairs, bicycles, donkey carts). Pedestrians and bicyclists are a particular hazard because they tend to disregard vehicular traffic; many walk/ride with earphones and are not cognizant or situationally aware of road hazards. Bicyclists will sometimes turn unexpectedly in front of drivers, or end up on the side of a vehicle at intersections, which is dangerous when making a right turn. Almost no bicyclists use reflective gear or lights. It is also common to see a large number of young children in the streets going/coming from school or playing soccer. Children are most visibly present during the summer (end of June-beginning of September) when schools are closed. Pedestrians should be extremely vigilant at night and always carry a flashlight.

An added complication to driving is the road conditions. The main roads in Asmara are good; however, side roads have little maintenance and often contain significant potholes. A number of roads, particularly in residential areas, are unimproved dirt roads. Since 2016, the Filfil Road leading from Asmara to Gahtielay, which connects with the road to Massawa, is practically unpassable due to multiple washout conditions and large mountain debris in the road. Driving at night is especially dangerous due to frequent power outages. Avoid travel outside of the city after dark or under less than ideal weather conditions.

Local law enforcement regularly maintains a police presence at various intersections via foot patrol and in police vehicles. Police also randomly conduct sobriety and driver’s license checkpoints. Sobriety checkpoints are often given on the spot, with a more thorough examination at a local police precinct. The legal alcohol limit is 0.08%. Drivers in Eritrea must obtain an Eritrea driver’s license. U.S. or international driver’s licenses are invalid.

For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s reports, Driving Overseas: Best Practices and Road Safety in Africa.

Public Transportation Conditions

While many Eritreans rely on the local bus service, the Embassy does not recommend the use of public buses for foreigners due to severe overcrowding, lack of maintenance, and high probability of pickpocketing.

Taxicabs are generally safe and dependable; however, travelers should negotiate the price in advance. Taxicabs customarily pick up multiple passengers; if you do not want this to happen, advise the cab driver in advance. The cost for a non-shared taxi will be ten times the normal fare.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

Security at Asmara’s Yohannes IV International Airport (ASM) can be unpredictable. While the airport does show signs of due diligence in security, screening, and identification verification, the use of national service conscripts generally results in a lack of efficiency and consistency in their job performance. Persons manning passport control are often inexperienced. It is not uncommon to have a number of people check your passport upon arrival/departure. It may take up to an hour to get through incoming passport control. Foreign passports and entry documents may face heavy scrutiny. Airport personnel screen personal effects coming into Eritrea intensely to discourage individuals from importing bulk items for resale. GPS devices and satellite phones are illegal and subject to confiscation. Airport security lacks technology to detect fraudulent documents.

Terrorism Threat

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There is minimal risk from terrorism in Asmara. Known opposition/separatist groups operate along the border areas. Most of these groups are focused on small-scale attacks against the government, often targeting military outposts, military vehicles, and economic enterprises that provide hard currency for the government. Foreigners who wander into those areas may be targets. Organizations like the Eritrean Islamic Jihad (also known as the Islamic Salvation Movement) mainly focus on opposing the government, with overall motives of establishing a caliphate in the Horn of Africa, and would likely be a threat to U.S./Western interests. With the lack of information sharing and travel restrictions, it is difficult to assess these groups’ capabilities to conduct operations. There have been no known acts of terrorism in Asmara in recent years. The government maintains a particularly tight hold on security in Massawa, Keren, and Asmara, the most densely populated cities.

Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace agreement in 2018 and reopened four border crossings, which can be closed without notice. 

Anti-U.S./Anti-Western Sentiment

There is an undercurrent of anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment among some Eritreans, mostly related to economic issues. The majority of incidents have not escalated above a verbal altercation.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

There is considerable risk from civil unrest in Asmara. Demonstrations are rare.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

Though the Embassy monitors incidents at the border with Sudan and the coast of the Red Sea (out of concern for the possibility of anti-Western groups entering the country illegally), it is unlikely that the Eritrean population would be easily radicalized.

The government officially recognizes four religions: Sunni Islam; Roman Catholicism; Lutheranism; and Orthodox Christianity; followers of unrecognized religions, specifically Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals, have been subject to persecution. Jehovah’s Witnesses International publicly alleges the incarceration of 55 believers. Some locally employed staff are in jail for practicing an unauthorized religion. Many speculate that Jehovah's Witnesses may be persecuted due to their unwillingness to bear arms and their refusal to participate in the original vote for independence. In a country with mandatory national service and no alternative for conscientious objectors, these individuals are imprisoned for not fulfilling their duties as citizens.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

As Eritrea is located on a fault line, earthquakes are possible.

Critical Infrastructure

Frequent power failures cause blackouts without warning.

Eritrea is experiencing a shortage of water supply. Water is being rationed by the government. 

Minor accidents occur frequently in factories. Some factories are in ill repair, with safeguards found in Western factories often absent. Safety training for employees is rare, leading to a number of deaths at factories each year.

Telecoms are unreliable, and internet service is intermittently available. Local SIM cards are not available for purchase without a resident’s permit. There is no data service or roaming available. The government controls communications (cell phone and internet), and has shut down social media during periods of civil unrest. For more information, review OSAC’s reports, Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband? and How Government Oversight of Media and Communications Affects Operations in Africa.

Economic Concerns

Counterfeit products are common at stores that sell movies via downloads and via thumb drives. Intellectual property theft tends to be limited to small-scale goods.

The Eritrean Nakfa (ERN) is the official currency. The economy is cash-based and there are no ATMs. Credit cards are not accepted anywhere. It is illegal to use foreign currency to make purchases, except at a few official hotels where foreigners must pay in U.S. dollars or Euros. Businesses that do accept U.S. bills require bills printed from 2003 or later. For those transiting from Addis Ababa, there is a limit of $3000 (or foreign currency equivalent) they may carry out of the country. It is illegal to exchange money anywhere other than at a state foreign currency exchange Himbol branch. You must declare all foreign currency brought into Eritrea in excess of $10,000 (or the equivalent). On departure, you must prove that you exchanged any missing foreign currency at a branch of the Himbol or provide receipts for items you purchased. The Eritrean government prohibits travelers from taking more than 1,000 Nakfa (currently approximately $66) out of Eritrea; authorities may confiscate the money and/or detain the violator.

Personal Identity Concerns

Domestic violence, punishable as assault and battery, is commonplace but rarely reported and perpetrators hardly ever prosecuted. No information is available on the prevalence of rape.

Consensual same-sex sexual activity is punishable by ten days to three years’ incarceration. Antidiscrimination laws relating to LGBTI persons do not exist. There are no known LGBTI organizations in the country. Hotels do not allow two females or two males to share one room unless it has separate beds.

Persons with disabilities face limited access to transportation, public buildings, hotels, and communication accommodations. Within Asmara, sidewalks are plentiful, although most are in bad condition and do not have cutouts. Few buildings have elevators. Due to frequent power outages, these elevators may not be functioning.

Eritrea does not recognize dual nationality. Eritrean authorities consider dual U.S. - Eritrean citizens as Eritrean nationals alone, severely limiting the ability of the U.S. Embassy to provide consular services. Eritrean nationals are subject to certain obligations, including taxes and conscription into national service; the National Service Proclamation of 1995 states that any Eritrean national between the age of 18 and 50 must participate in National Service. The government requires proof of payment of the 2% income tax to obtain any civil documents (e.g. birth certificates, educational transcripts, property ownership records, court records). Inquire at an Eritrean embassy or consulate regarding status before you travel.

Drug-related Crimes

Eritrea has very strict drug laws, and penalties are harsh.

Police Response

Police generally do not speak English; communication can be difficult.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

The U.S. Embassy is limited in its ability to assist in cases of arrest of U.S. citizens, especially those who are dual-nationals of Eritrean descent. The government does not notify the U.S. Embassy when U.S. citizens are arrested, and it does not allow U.S. Embassy visits to detainees. If a U.S. citizen is harassed or detained, call or have a friend call the Embassy (Tel: 291-1-120-004) to report the circumstances. If police harass a U.S. citizen, attempt to get the name of the officer and provide that information to the Embassy. This may be very difficult due to language barriers, and the fact that the Eritrean government is generally not cooperative.

Crime Victim Assistance

Local police are generally willing to assist but sometimes lack the capability. It is possible that police officers will not be able to arrive at the scene of the crime, but are willing to take a police report at the station. It is not uncommon for individuals to provide police with transportation to a crime scene if a police vehicle is not available. District stations handle most crimes. However, if a crime involves corruption or the diplomatic community, it is referred to law enforcement headquarters for investigation. U.S. citizen victims of crime also report the incident to the Embassy, as it is unlikely that the local police will share that information.

Police/Security Agencies

A centralized police service investigates crimes and enforces traffic laws. Traffic police handle any traffic accidents/violations. Eritrea is divided into six districts. Maekel (meaning “Central”) District encompasses Asmara and the surrounding areas. Each district has smaller areas of responsibility, each with a police station. Maekel District has seven police stations.

Crime Prevention Unit: 291-1-125-229

Investigations Unit: 291-1-115-402

Airport Security: 291-1-186-604

1st police station: 291-1-127-799

2nd police station: 291-1-116-219

3rd police station: 291-1-114-942

4th police station: 291-08-373-068

5th police station: 291-1-151-118

6th police station: 291-1-115-551

7th police station: 291-1-186-743

Besides the criminal and traffic police, there are also military police responsible for responding to protests, riots, or other civil disturbances. Although the government maintains a special “riot police,” military police or actual military units generally respond to anything resembling civil unrest.

Eritrea has a diplomatic police unit that purportedly provides mobile and foot patrols at diplomatic missions in Asmara. The Embassy has not seen any evidence of this; however, the police have responded to the alarms that originated from Embassy drills. This unit is also responsible for the investigation of crimes involving diplomatic property or personnel.

Eritrea employs municipal/administrative police managed by each municipality. These are unarmed police who do not have arrest powers and are mainly responsible for administrative issues. They are responsible for visiting building sites to ensure the builder has a permit; verifying that businesses have first-aid kits and fire extinguishers; and checking grocery stores for selling expired items or using plastic bags, which are illegal. They also regulate street vendors.

The civilian militia has taken on some patrol duties. At night, members patrol their neighborhoods. The civilian militia has static posts where they provide coverage to banks, gas depots, government buildings, airport, etc. They are similar to police officers, just with more specific and restricted mandates, and are sometimes (particularly during large national holidays or events such as the May 24 Independence Day celebration) specifically instructed to check the documents of pedestrians to ensure compliance with National Service requirements.

Medical Emergencies

Medical facilities and physicians are limited. Medicines are in short supply. Bring your own medical supplies, prescription drugs, and preventative medicines. For more information, refer to OSAC’s report, Traveling with Medications.

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

Sembel Hospital: 291-1-150-175

Orota Hospital: 291-1-201-917 or 291-1-202-914

Available Air Ambulance Services

SOS USA: 1-800-523-6586

SOS London International: 44-20-8762-8133

SOS Geneva: 41-22-785-6464

Insurance Guidance

Doctors and hospitals expect payment at the time of service for foreigners.

The policy of the U.S. Embassy is to stabilize and evacuate. Those individuals not in critical need of medical care can evacuate via commercial air. The Embassy uses International SOS flights for emergency medical evacuations (medevac). For more information, refer to OSAC’s report, Medical Evacuation: A Primer.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Malaria is prevalent in the coastal areas and western lowlands. Use Malaria prophylaxis when traveling to these areas. Dengue and diarrheal diseases are also present.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Eritrea.

OSAC Country Council Information

There is no Country Council in Asmara. 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

The U.S. Embassy is located at 179 Alaa Street. Monday-Thursday 0730-1700, Friday 0730-1330

Embassy Contact Numbers

Embassy Operator: 291-1-120-004

Website: http://er.usembassy.gov

Embassy Guidance

The U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. citizens traveling to Eritrea register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

Additional Resource: Eritrea Country Information Sheet

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