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

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Malawi 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Malawi. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Malawi country 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.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Malawi at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to civil unrest. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation 

Crime Threats 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Lilongwe as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. 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. Review OSAC’s reports, All That You Should Leave Behind.

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 carrying panga knives (machetes), and sometimes firearms. 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 specific targets.  

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 because of public distrust and lack of confidence in the Malawi Police Service.  

Carjackings occur especially in Lilongwe and Blantyre. Carjackers often block the rear of a victim’s vehicle while it waits to pass through a security gate into a residence and then assailants will threaten the driver and take the car. Carjackers sometimes also assault victims.

Avoid traveling on foot at night, especially in urban areas, as armed muggings and assaults have increased. Non-Malawians have been targets in Lilongwe, and several U.S. citizens have been injured. Consider city streets unsafe after dark even when walking in a large group. Pedestrians should also be cautious during daylight hours.

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. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

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. 

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.  

Use caution when visiting and/or staying in isolated areas such as Mount Mulanje, where the availability of public security forces is limited. Take appropriate action to ensure your safety if traveling to remote areas, and never travel alone or at night.

Cybersecurity Issues 

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation 

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. Most 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. 

Roads are in poor condition. Most 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. Vehicles involved in breakdowns and accidents rarely clear from the roadway, presenting 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 lack lighting at night. Strictly limit 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. 

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. 

Police roadblocks are common, but properly documented drivers usually pass quickly and without incident. Police operate radar-based speed traps throughout the country; they expect drivers to pay fines on the spot, so ensure you get a receipt. You must obtain a locally-issued driver's license if you remain in Malawi for an extended period and plan to drive. Never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Always wear a seat belt and insist that the drivers maintain a safe speed. Fuel supply, both diesel and gasoline, is often erratic. Avoid travel by foot along roadways.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions  

Visitors in need of transportation should request that hotel or restaurant management call a taxi or car service.

Avoid public transportation, which is extremely limited and unreliable. Public transportation 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. Modern coach buses are increasingly common on the main cross-country routes.

Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Terrorism Threat 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Lilongwe as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Lilongwe as being a MEDIUM-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Spontaneous civil disturbances and demonstrations, primarily related to governance and economic issues, can occur. These may become more common leading up to, and immediately following elections in Malawi. In the run-up to the May 2019 national elections, political demonstrations occurred throughout the country.  Demonstrations have continued since the election as opposition parties and human rights groups seek to overturn the election results and remove members from the Malawi Electoral Commission.  No matter the result, there will be potential problems.  On occasion, acts of vandalism and looting have accompanied demonstrations, and police have responded by deploying tear gas.  

There is public discontent with economic problems (e.g. power cuts, food insecurity, fuel shortages, inflation) and perceived poor governance. Many security issues are the result of the poor state of the economy, which saw high inflation ease, but unemployment persist in 2019. 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. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest

Post-specific Concerns  

Critical Infrastructure Concerns 

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. 

Economic Concerns

Credit cards are not commonly accepted outside of major cities. There are a limited number of ATMs in Malawi that accept Visa, MasterCard, and international ATM cards. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Personal Identity Concerns 

Homosexuality is regarded as taboo, and openly identifiable LGBTI+ persons can be subject to harassment and hostility. Although the government has maintained its 2014 moratorium on enforcement of anti-sodomy laws, those accused may still be subject to arrest.  Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Individuals with albinism have been the focus of attacks in 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. 

In 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.   

Dress codes prohibiting short skirts on women and long hair on men no longer exist, but Malawi is a conservative society and travelers should dress modestly, especially when visiting remote areas. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

Some modern buildings may have wheelchair accessible entrances. Generally, public transportation is not accessible for travelers with disabilities. The law prohibits discrimination in education, health care, social services, the workplace, housing, political life, and cultural and sporting activities for persons with disabilities. However, the government has yet to adopt standards and plans for its enforcement and implementation. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Other Issues

Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response 

Report crimes to the local police at 199 or 997. The Malawi Police Service is the national law enforcement authority. 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.

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. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure.

Medical Emergencies 

Medical facilities are rudimentary, lack resources, and are not comparable with those in the U.S. Many rural areas have no access to nearby medical care.   While all health workers have some degree of English proficiency, communication can be difficult.

Many medications are not available. Bring adequate quantities of medications to last the duration of your stay. Always carry your prescription medication in original packaging with your doctor’s prescription. Check with your primary healthcare provider or local travel clinic regarding malaria prophylaxis medications. Check with the government of Malawi to ensure the medication is legal in Malawi. Review OSAC’s report, Traveling with Medication.

For major medical problems, consider obtaining medical treatment in South Africa, where advanced medical care is available. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy website. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Diarrhea and other food borne illnesses are a common problem. Avoid tap water, ice cubes, and raw fruits and vegetables. Use bottled water for drinking and food preparation. Consume only food that is well-cooked and served hot.

The following diseases are prevalent: Malaria; Schistosomiasis; HIV; and Tuberculosis. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Malawi.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information  

Lilongwe has an active Country Council. Contact OSAC’s Africa team for more information or to join.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information  

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

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 in regular use, and are a poor means of locating the compound.  

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

Website: https://mw.usembassy.gov/ 

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

OSAC Risk Matrix

OSAC Travelers Toolkit

State Department Traveler’s Checklist

Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

 

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