**Impact of Ebola in Sierra Leone**
As of January 2015, the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone continues to rise in certain areas of the country. The risk to the general public that adheres to safe health practices continues to be low. Most Ebola infections are limited to people caring for sick relatives or who have participated in traditional funeral practices, which are now outlawed. The virus spreads to family members who care for them. The infection rates among relatives and in small villages are high once one person is infected and not isolated in a treatment center. The Ebola response infrastructure has vastly improved, and there are facilities and systems in place to ensure isolation and treatment are available. Survival rates are higher for those who seek treatment immediately. No U.S. Embassy American or Sierra Leonean staff member has been infected with Ebola. Education about the disease is the key to keeping safe. For more information please visit the CDC's website and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website.
The Embassy in Freetown is on ordered departure status for non-working adult family members and children due to the closing of all schools and the lack of normal medical services. Please be advised that many private clinics have closed, and non-Ebola medical care options are severely limited.
Before coming to Sierra Leone, travelers should contact their medical evacuation insurance provider to ensure that they are covered in case of an Ebola infection or other medical emergency. The conditions in Sierra Leone and the neighboring countries have caused many companies to stop providing insurance for medical evacuation due to the limited options in the region. Some larger companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have set aside the cost of a medevac flight for the unlikely event that it is needed rather than find an insurer. Those who do not work in an Ebola treatment center or health care facility may have a very low risk for an Ebola-evacuation but may need to be evacuated in case of some other medical emergency.
Businesses have been negatively affected due to the departure of many long-time resident expatriates and affluent Sierra Leonean citizens. Many businesses have reduced their operating hours and staff as a result of lack of patronage and due to local by-laws. Crime is increasing in some areas due to loss of income and security forces being stretched beyond their capacity.
Ebola also has limited travel between cities, as the government and/or local authorities have implemented quarantines of certain areas and will deny non-residents entry. The quarantines are not predictable and often are lifted and implemented without pattern or forewarning. There are checkpoints requiring hand washing and temperature checks along all of the major roads. On the secondary roads and in some chiefdoms, there are locally-implemented health checks and quarantines as well. All travelers are advised to comply with requests to check temperatures and wash hands.
Outside of these extraordinary Ebola response issues, the overall safety and security situation in Sierra Leone is provided below.
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Sierra Leone presents an exceptionally challenging operating environment for business investors, as it continues to struggle with pervasive corruption, rebuilding from the decade-long civil war (1992-2002), and the consolidation of democratic procedures. The country ranks 180 of the 187 countries in the U.N. Human Development Index; poverty is endemic as the GNI per capita is less than one U.S. dollar per day. Inflation, high unemployment rates, and low incomes associated with work in the informal sector create conditions of gross economic hardship. Poor infrastructure, unreliable communications/electricity, and a full range of tropical health risks, including endemic malaria, deter many foreign investors and entrepreneurs. One lasting effect of the war is the lack of skilled and semi-skilled workers; this makes finding competent and qualified employees difficult.
Crime Rating: High
Expatriates are frequent targets due to their perceived wealth. The majority of crimes against Americans are non-violent confrontations characterized as crimes of opportunity (i.e., pickpocketing, theft of unattended possessions in public places or hotel rooms, bag snatching, and financial confidence scams). Theft from vehicles, breaking windows in parked cars, reaching through windows or opening unlocked doors while cars sit in traffic are all common. Criminal gangs take advantage of unsuspecting motorists by throwing rocks (causing vehicles to stop) or by simply opening doors and grabbing items through passenger side windows and then running away through the heavy foliage.
Americans have reported theft of money and property from locked hotel rooms. A majority of these crimes were inside jobs perpetrated by hotel employees and house-keeping staff. No hotel -- even upscale establishments -- is immune.
Theft and malfeasance are problems for business owners, and employers should be prepared for substantial pilferage and internal losses.
There has been a steady proliferation in the number of gangs and cliques in Freetown over the past five years. Together, they present a potential threat to public order that has increased criminality and encouraged anti-social behavior. Most often, these groups are comprised of unemployed youth who align according to geographic or ethnic/tribal similarities or according to pop music preferences (i.e., rival local hip-hop artists).
Nighttime robberies, assaults, petty street crime, and home invasions are common. Most diplomats, expatriates, foreign businesses, and wealthy Sierra Leoneans rely on 24-hour private security guards or armed SLP Operational Support Division officers to protect residences and other property. Most residential break-ins at well protected compounds are “inside jobs” and typically are non-violent. However, they can also be perpetrated by small groups of well-organized, armed (machetes or homemade firearms) bandits equipped with tools. The preferred method of entry is using stealth techniques (during a rainstorm to mask their movements, sneaking past a sleeping guard, cutting through roofs, or tunneling under walls).
The number of violent crimes is comparable to most other West African countries.
Members of the Sierra Leonean Diaspora normally return to visit family/friends during the Christmas and New Year holidays. There is an uptick in criminality during this period (i.e., petty theft, luggage pilferage, pickpocketing, confidence scams, etc.) due to the presence of affluent visitors.
Areas of Concern
Occasionally, the nightclubs along Aberdeen Road and Lumley Beach Road are the scene of incidents including theft, prostitution, drug sales, and bar fights. It is unsafe to walk on Lumley Beach during hours of darkness.
Most gang activity is confined to eastern Freetown and does not involve visitors or foreigners.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Driving is a serious challenge. Freetown's downtown streets are narrow, crowded, and in constant disrepair. The lack of street lights, stop lights/signs, sidewalks, and guardrails, combined with steep hillside drop-offs, potholes, and unpaved road surfaces increase risk of injury or death for drivers and pedestrians. Due to the poor road condition, vehicles are forced to move slowly and negotiate through large potholes. Local drivers do not follow general road safety rules. Motorbikes usually carry multiple passengers, weave in and out of traffic, drive on any available surfaces or nearby sections of the road, and adhere to no rules. Several major arterials are undergoing road-widening, a positive development for the city; however, the long-term construction results in significant delays, congestion, and an “anything goes” driving style (i.e., using the opposite lane for forward movement, disregard for the proper flow of traffic in roundabouts, etc). The main roads outside of Freetown are paved between most major cities, but all others are unpaved, unlit, poorly maintained, and can be hazardous to drive. Motor vehicles are a major cause of death or injury in Sierra Leone. Visitors are advised to exercise extreme caution when near any road or in motor vehicle traffic. For these reasons, U.S. Embassy personnel are counseled to not drive the roads outside of Freetown after dark. Drinking and driving is also a major concern and poses a significant risk particularly after dark.
Police and immigration checkpoints can be found throughout Sierra Leone. These checkpoints are official and require all vehicles to stop so that passengers and materials can be searched or passports/entry visas can be confirmed. They are staffed with SLP officers in uniform and normally feature a “Police” sign or SLP logo. Children and road repair crews often establish impromptu roadblocks using string, rocks, or branches in order to exact money from passing motorists. These roadblocks are illegal, and drivers should not feel compelled to stop.
Public Transportation Conditions
Taxi cabs, motorbikes (okadas), and the ubiquitous mini-van transports (poda-poda) present a hazard because they are poorly maintained, crowded, and driven erratically. These conveyances should be avoided when possible and are off-limits to U.S. Embassy personnel. Other forms of public transportation are minimal. There are no railways and only a very limited bus network.
Use of public transportation, including buses, taxis, and mopeds, is highly discouraged. Hiring a dedicated car and driver from a trusted and reliable source is recommended.
The Freetown airport, located across the Sierra Leone River in Lungi, is serviced using ferries and water taxis. Road travel to the airport typically takes three hours during daylight. The Embassy recommends only using licensed taxis and ferries, not dhows or cheaper transport. There is no helicopter service to Freetown from the airport.
Other Travel Conditions
Pedestrians are a constant hazard, and tend to walk on or near roads often only inches from passing vehicles and frequently oblivious to motorists and mindless of their own personal safety. Be especially aware of pedestrians at night.
Sierra Leone does not have any major problems with piracy within its territorial waters or banditry along its highways. There are piracy issues between Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leone fishermen, and other international fishermen who are caught in Sierra Leonean waters. With the increase in oil exploration activities in Sierra Leonean waters, piracy has become a security concern. Lawmakers are attempting to develop specific laws to punish this crime. Piracy on the high seas is prosecuted as “armed robbery.” Sierra Leone has also become a “flag of convenience” in the international shipping industry. The government has certified a shipping agency headquartered in Singapore to manage Sierra Leone registrations of vessels; however, Sierra Leone’s registry of sea vessels remains poorly managed.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
There were no instances of political violence or terrorism directed against Americans in recent years. Political violence is sporadic and tends to increase during election periods.
Political Violence Rating: Medium
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
Terrorism Rating: Low
The government is sensitive to the threat of terrorism and is engaged with international partners to combat it. There is an element of Sierra Leone society that is quietly sympathetic to Hezbollah’s political agenda and may provide financial and moral support to this organization. Sierra Leone’s participation in the UN peacekeeping efforts in Somalia has caused concerns that terrorists may turn their sites on Sierra Leone. The government is keenly aware and actively monitoring against this.
There is no known organization targeting American citizens or affiliated interests in Sierra Leone. There is no evidence to indicate that terrorist organizations have operational capacity in Sierra Leone or are actively targeting Western interests in the country. Anti-American sentiment is rare; however, visitors are cautioned to avoid any large public gatherings (i.e., concerts, sports matches) that could become attractive targets for terrorists.
Although political demonstrations and rallies are normally peaceful, spontaneous rioting and attacks on individuals can occur. Participants at political rallies are often intoxicated and may use weapons of opportunity, including sticks and rocks. The SLP crowd control methods typically include the firing of warning shots and using tear gas. Crowds of students have been known to become destructive and vandalize buildings and vehicles after local soccer matches between rival schools. Political demonstrations also can become dangerous, with rival factions becoming aggressive toward one another and the police. Police often respond in kind, exacerbating already tense situations. The large, loosely affiliated union of commercial motorbike riders (okadas) is quick to mobilize and has caused several public order problems across the country. Similarly, strikes and demonstrations by employees in the mineral extraction industry and teachers/lecturers, based upon salary grievances and conditions of employment, are a perennial issue and often cause widespread disturbances.
Religious violence is rare, and society overall is very religiously tolerant, with a mixture of religions serving throughout the government and living side by side. Tensions do run high between tribal groups, and there is evidence of favoritism between regional tribes and their political representatives.
Freetown lacks the drainage infrastructure to accommodate storm water runoff, and as a result, low lying parts of the city and major vehicle thoroughfares flood during the rainy season (June-October). Torrential rains also challenge Freetown’s often poorly-constructed hillside structures. Mudslides and building collapses result in several deaths every rainy season. Visitors should familiarize themselves with flood-prone areas and consider travel in a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle.
Critical Infrastructure Concerns
Freetown’s extremely limited infrastructure suffers from a lack of maintenance and planning. The absence of reliable power and water in most areas of the city, heavy wear/tear on vehicles contending with poorly maintained or unpaved roads, long logistical lead times, and licensing restrictions can be burdensome and costly for all businesses. Telephony is limited to cellular phones, and there are no traditional “land line” telephone services. There are several internet service providers, however, bandwidth is limited, and service is extremely slow and expensive. The launch of fiber optic cable has improved some service. The 3g and 4g networks are oversubscribed.
Sierra Leone is generally a cash economy. U.S. dollars from 2006 and before are not accepted. There are some ATMs that accept international Visa cards. Point of sale credit card terminals exist in some major shops, hotels, and restaurants. There are no functioning MasterCard cash points. An anti-money laundering law passed in 2005 prohibits importing more than $10,000 in cash except through a financial institution. Travelers' checks are not usually accepted.
Local citizens may request a small fee for taking a picture (snap) of them or their surroundings. Do not photograph government buildings, embassies, military installations, airports, harbors or other locations or items of a possible security or intelligence interest. Cameras can be confiscated.
Narco-trafficking represents a growing threat to stability and security in the region. Illegal drug-trafficking in Sierra Leone is an ongoing problem. Porous borders, endemic poverty, and its relative geographic proximity to South American and European markets make Sierra Leone vulnerable to organized criminal elements. Illicit drugs are readily available in Freetown and are often offered for sale in bars and nightclubs. Drug (especially marijuana) and alcohol use within the 20-40 year old age range is high and increasing.
The increase in narcotics trafficking through Sierra Leone, with links to international organized crime syndicates, is a disturbing trend. The considerable wealth associated with the drug trade, channeled through corrupt and complicit officials, could have a destabilizing impact on the country. Transiting drugs are commonly found on the local market, adding cocaine and methamphetamines to the more traditional drug of choice, marijuana.
The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) continues to have problems addressing crime elements. Accusations of excessive force by the armed Operational Support Division often cause protests. Public perception of the police is poor. Police response is often slow and unreliable.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
It is not recommended to pay bribes, comply with requests for a “gift,” or pay on-the-spot fines. Instead, obtain the officer’s name and badge number and politely ask to speak with a supervisor and/or request to be taken to police headquarters for further processing.
SLP are required to notify the U.S. Embassy when an American citizen has been arrested; however, it consistently fails to do so. If arrested, be certain to assert this right and demand to speak with a representative from the U.S. Embassy by calling (076) 515-000, or if after normal business hours (076) 912-708.
Crime Victim Assistance
You may have to go to the police station and pick up the police to respond to an incident. Receiving police assistance can be especially difficult for the Americans because:
* Local police stations do not have working landline telephones. Most police officers rely on private cell phones for communication, and these numbers are not publicized.
* Officers answering the telephone often do not understand English. It is the official language of Sierra Leone, but Krio is the lingua franca.
* The police frequently lack transportation to respond to the scene of the incident.
* When transportation is available, fuel often is not.
Some American citizens who have gone to a police station to report crime claim that police officers requested money in order to purchase paper/pens before the officer could take a statement or write a report. There is a fee to make a police report; for foreigners the cost is 300,000 Leones, (about $70) and 50,000 Leones for citizens. Payment is made at the bank, not at the police station.
Travelers requiring police assistance are advised to contact the police through the Joint Communications Center (076) 319-978 or Control Room (076) 771-721, both of which are equipped offices to assist international travelers.
Other police contacts
Central Police Station: (076) 607-742
Eastern Police Station: (078) 319-984
Lumley Police Station: (076) 561-065
Congo Cross Police Station: (078) 137-348
Goderich Police Station: (088) 208-910
Malima Police Station: (076) 921-765
The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) force is a national police force administered from Freetown. It suffers from limited resources and training. Of the approximately 12,000 members, there are about 3,000 armed officers assigned to the Operational Support Division (OSD). OSD officers are armed with shoulder weapons and usually staff roadside checkpoints, serve on emergency response patrol teams, and are assigned to protect foreign missions. There are also traffic police, a Criminal Investigation Division, and regular police.
Medical facilities fall critically short of U.S and European standards. There are no 911 equivalent ambulance services. Trauma care is extremely limited, and local hospitals should only be used in the event of an extreme medical emergency. Many primary health care workers, especially in rural areas, lack adequate professional training. Medicines are in short supply and due to inadequate diagnostic equipment, lack of medical resources, and limited medical specialty personnel, complex diagnosis, and treatment are unavailable. Patients are required to pay money up front, before being admitted to a hospital or provided treatment.
Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/Clinics
Choithram Memorial Hospital: (076) 623-483
Emergency Hospital Goderich: (076) 611-386
Davidson Nicol Medical Centre: (076) 977-028
Since the Ebola outbreak physician availability has been spotty and inconsistent.
The Consular Section attempts to update their list of medical contacts at: http://freetown.usembassy.gov/list_of_local_doctors_and_hospitals6.html
Recommended Insurance Posture
All travelers to Sierra Leone are advised to purchase insurance to cover medical evacuation in case of a serious accident, injury, or illness. Medical evacuation can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the severity of the situation, so all travelers should ensure their policies provide sufficient coverage.
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
Visitors should bring their own supply of medications, as the quality of medications is inconsistent, and counterfeit drugs remain a problem.
Blood transfusions can be life-threatening due to lack of screening and poor quality control. Visitors with serious health concerns (diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or who are on blood thinners (with the exception of aspirin)) are discouraged from traveling to Sierra Leone. All visitors should have current vaccinations prior to arrival. These include, but are not limited to, tetanus, yellow fever, polio, meningitis, typhoid, hepatitis A and B, and rabies.
Malaria is endemic and prophylaxis is a necessity. Expatriates have died from cerebral malaria in the last year. Malaria is a major cause of death in Sierra Leone. Visitors are advised to take properly prescribed anti-malarial medication.
Lassa Fever is endemic in Eastern Province, and yearly Cholera outbreaks are common throughout the country. The cholera vaccine is not required. Since sanitary conditions are poor and refrigeration is unreliable, use caution when eating uncooked vegetables, salads, seafood, or meats at restaurants and hotels. Only bottled water should be consumed.
Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747). For additional information on vaccines and health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/sierra-leone. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the infectious diseases section of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website. The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Several American citizens have been victimized by confidence scams involving the purchase of gold dust and diamonds. These individuals have been defrauded of tens to thousands of dollars by local nationals claiming to be affiliated with various gold dealerships, government ministries, Government Gold and Diamond Office (GGDO), customs, and police. American citizens considering purchasing gold or diamonds need to complete their due diligence before entering into deals. Offers to sell diamonds and other gems should be ignored. These items are highly regulated and must be purchased through licensed brokers. Any offer made on the street is illegal and illegitimate and most likely involves fake gems.
Foreign businesses are often the target of other scams; among them are claiming false ownership of land and charges for electrical use by entities presenting themselves as the National Power Authority.
Businesses should be cautious when choosing legal representation, as local attorneys are often at the center of criminal scams. Prospective American business owners should be aware that the vetting process of employee candidates is extremely challenging and unreliable because the police do not have an electronic computer database and spotty records during the war years. Similarly, there is no way to formally vet potential business partners.
Advance-fee fraud schemes typically associated with Nigeria are prevalent throughout West Africa, including in Sierra Leone, and pose a danger of grave financial loss. These scams begin with unsolicited communication (usually e-mails) from strangers who promise quick financial gain, often by transferring large sums of money or valuables out of the country but then require a series of "advance fees," such as fees for legal documents or taxes, to be paid. The final payoff does not exist; the purpose of the scam is simply to collect the advance fees. A common variation is the scammer’s claim to be a refugee or émigré of a prominent West African family or a relative of a present or former political leader who needs assistance in transferring large sums of cash. Still other variations appear to be legitimate business deals that require advance payments on contracts. Sometimes, victims are convinced to provide bank account and credit card information and financial authorization that is used to drain their accounts, incur large debts against their credit, and take their life savings. The best way to avoid becoming a victim of advance-fee fraud is common sense – if a proposition looks too good to be true, it probably is. Any unsolicited business proposal should be thoroughly researched before committing any funds, providing any goods or services, or undertaking any travel. It is virtually impossible to recover money lost through these scams.
Beware of offers to sell you gold, diamonds, etc. These types of activities could result in substantial loss of money or violation of local laws. The Embassy receives dozens of reports every year from Americans who attempted to invest in extractive industries and were defrauded. Do not purchase diamonds, gold, or other gems/minerals from an unlicensed source. Many diamond distributors in Sierra Leone are unlicensed and produce fraudulent gem certificates.
Situational Awareness Best Practices
All American citizen visitors and those planning to reside in Sierra Leone are advised to follow common-sense guidelines to avoid becoming victims of crime.
Do not carry valuables in excess of immediate needs, and keep what you need in a secure place on your person. Maintain control of your personal items when in public areas and move away from anyone who you believe is acting suspiciously. Thieves often attempt to distract a victim by asking questions, begging for money, bumping or jostling the individual, or offering to sell items. While the victim is distracted, an accomplice may take a piece of luggage or pick the victim’s pocket or purse. Violent crime and the use of weapons in the commission of crime is commonplace. Do not walk on the beach at night. Never carry anything that you are not willing to relinquish in a confrontation with a thief. In the event that an armed criminal confronts you, immediately hand over the desired property to avoid escalation or injury.
Be alert to any unusual surveillance or activity near the places you frequently visit. Vary your routes and times so that others cannot predict your schedule. Keep valuable items out of sight.
Keep doors locked and windows rolled up at all times when inside your vehicle. Practice good operational security if you are transporting valuable items into and around Sierra Leone. Some reported robberies committed against expatriates appear to have been carried out by persons with inside information regarding the victims. If you are involved in a vehicular accident, it is important to be aware that a large crowd may gather and could become hostile and aggressive. This may happen even if you are not at fault. If you feel threatened or fear for your safety, leave the scene and go to the nearest police station. Always park in secure, well-lit locations. Do not hitchhike or pick up hitchhikers.
Security plans should include layers of protection to make their property less attractive for break-ins.
Do not leave anything of value unlocked in your unoccupied hotel room. Even the small safes provided by the hotel are vulnerable and should not be trusted. Do not invite strangers into your quarters. Supervise/escort all workers in your quarters.
Travelers are advised that hotel rooms and international flights may be in short supply from November until February.
Travelers are advised to use credit cards cautiously because very few facilities accept them. There is a serious risk that using a card will lead to the number being stolen for use in fraudulent transactions. When your card is swiped, do not let it out of your line of sight. Credit card machines operate over the cell phone system, so the machine should be brought to you. Currency exchanges should be handled through a bank or established foreign exchange bureau. Exchanging money with street vendors is dangerous because criminals may "mark" such individuals for attack, and there is a risk of receiving counterfeit currency. Carefully protect all financial and personal information as incidents of financial fraud and identity theft crimes are increasing in Sierra Leone.
Always ask permission before taking a photograph.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
The US Embassy is located at Leicester Square, off Regent Road, in the hills above the city.
Embassy hours: Monday – Thursday 8:00am – 5:15pm; Friday 08:00am – 1pm
Embassy Contact Numbers
All Embassy sections can be reached through the Embassy switchboard at: (232-76) 515-000 from overseas or (076) 515-000 if dialing locally. However, travelers may reach the Consular Section in non-emergency situations via e-mail at email@example.com.
Embassy Operator: (076) 515-000
After hours: (076) 515-160
After hours: Embassy Duty Officer: (076) 912-708
RSO email: RSOFreetown@state.gov
All travelers should consult the Department of State’s website, http://travel.state.gov, and the U.S. Embassy Sierra Leone website for current information about Sierra Leone prior to travel. Visitors are also encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy Consular Section online or in person. American citizens should register with the Consular Section’s American Citizen Services at https://travelregistration.state.gov prior to travelling to Sierra Leone. They should do so on-line but can also register online or at the Consular Section upon arrival. U.S. citizens wishing to conduct business in Sierra Leone should consult the Embassy Freetown Economic Section website for advice and words of caution: http://freetown.usembassy.gov/business.html.
OSAC Country Council Information
Embassy Freetown does not have a formal OSAC Country Council due to the limited number of American owned or operated business interests in Sierra Leone. The nearest OSAC Country Council is in Dakar, Senegal. Embassy Freetown has supported the establishment of an American Chamber of Commerce in Sierra Leone. The RSO continues to provide country briefings for representatives of American businesses, non-governmental organizations, academia, and faith-based organizations as requested.