Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy 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.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED ASMARA AS BEING A HIGH-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Please review OSAC’s Eritrea webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
Obtaining official crime statistics in Asmara 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.
The Eritrean Police Service reported that crimes were reduced by 7.5% in 2016 during their annual assessment meeting. This meeting is regularly conducted at the end of the year and is attended by the Head of Eritrean Police and Security Forces, Eritrean Police Commissioner, and representatives from the Zobas (districts), divisions, units and sections. During the annual assessment meeting, the Commissioner reported that more than 8,339 people were charged and given sentences for a variety of offenses over the year.
Walking the streets of Asmara between 0600-2000 hours is generally safe. The downtown area of Asmara is generally populated with people from morning until midnight. Asmara is a very active city during the night. As long as isolated areas are avoided, people can walk around fairly freely. 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).
Although crime is present, particularly at certain hours and in certain locations, Asmara is generally safer than many capital cities. Although Asmara does not have the same level of street crime as other cities, U.S. citizens should exercise caution and common sense. There are dozens of neighborhoods and shopping areas throughout Asmara that attract residents and visitors alike and, therefore, petty criminals. Travelers should be aware of their surroundings and keep wallets/purses close to the body. 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 being assaulted and robbed while walking along the streets late at night.
Crime is generally higher in the early morning hours and in areas with high bar/club concentrations (Expo Center). Downtown has a high bar/club concentration. Some bars stay open until 5am.
- On at least eight occasions in 2016, intoxicated persons have approached the residential guards at U.S. government-leased residences in a hostile manner, generally as result of intoxication.
It is not uncommon on the weekends for 2-3 disturbances/fights to occur, and youth gangs are indiscriminate in who they target. Women walking alone during these hours are particularly vulnerable.
- In October 2016, Westerners reported five instances of assault. In the most severe case, a female Westerner was returning to her home at night and was violently attacked by two men. She reported being kicked and punched repeatedly and that the assailants demanded she hand over her phone and money.
Crimes also tend 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. Crimes tend to be lower from April to about June 20 (Martyr’s Day) when security is tight due to Independence Day celebrations on May 24.
While homicides do occur, they are more often committed by known individuals, sometimes as a result of land disputes, crimes of passion, and domestic issues. Sexual assaults are usually committed by individuals known to the victim or in situations where the use of drugs or alcohol plays a factor (such as late at nights around bars). However, the occasional homicide has occurred as the result of an assault or robbery against strangers. These incidents are generally a result of crimes of opportunity occurring in the early morning hours. The Embassy has no specific knowledge of homicide or sexual assault being 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. In 2016, the Embassy was alerted to 14 incidents of vehicle theft in Asmara, and on at least four occasions this included U.S. Embassy Locally Employed Staff vehicles or Westerners in Asmara. The Embassy recommends using vehicle alarms and other visual deterrents (steering wheel locks).
Residential crime ebbs and flows. In early 2016, there were a number of reported break-ins and burglaries of expatriate residences. In the case of one Westerner, the suspect came into the home and held the female expatriate at bay with a knife while stealing personal belongings.
Other Areas of Concern
In 2006, the Eritrean government issued a decree restricting the travel of foreigners outside of Asmara. While many requests to travel to Keren, Mendefera, and Massawa have been granted, access is not guaranteed. Travel permits are very specific and do not allow for side trips/deviations. Religious and other significant sites have to be specifically requested and approved.
- In February 2015, Embassy personnel on an area familiarization trip to Massawa were rejected entry at the Port of Massawa and the Massawa Airport for failure to have specific permits for access.
- In 2014, two teachers at the International School were granted permits to visit Keren. While visiting a monastery outside Keren, they were detained by local police because their permits did not include the monastery.
The current Travel Warning clearly states that traveling outside of areas expressly provided for in a travel permit puts the traveler at risk.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Asmara is situated on a plateau, and the roads leading to the city are dangerously steep, curving, and narrow, with most in poor condition and with minimal/no guard rails. Roads are frequently littered with rocks and debris.
Driving is challenging. Road rules are often not observed, and it is not uncommon to find vehicles stopped in active traffic lanes. There were 119,000 traffic violations in 2016 according to police reports. There were 4,091 accidents that resulted in the death of 130 people. These accidents resulted in 71,000,000 Nakfa worth of property damage. However, the police stated there was a 6.31% reduction of accidents in 2016 compared to 2015. 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 are sometimes not well-maintained, due to the expense and lack of spare parts. Thus, people tend to improvise repairs. They travel on precarious roads where fog and haphazard driving result in a number of fatalities each year. Defensive driving is imperative.
The biggest hazard is non-vehicular traffic in the roadway (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 unexpectedly turn 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, even at night. There is also an extremely large number of children (aged 5 and up) in the streets going and coming from school or playing soccer. Children are most visibly present during the summer (end of June-beginning of September) because schools are generally closed.
An added complication to driving is the road conditions. The main roads in Asmara are fairly good; however, side roads are not well maintained and often contain significant potholes. A number of roads, particularly in residential areas, are unimproved dirt roads. As of early 2016, the Filfil Road, leading from Asmara to Massawa, is practically unpassable due to multiple wash-out conditions and large mountain debris in the road. Driving at night is especially dangerous, as frequent power outages leave many streets dark. Pedestrians are encouraged to be extremely vigilant at night and always carry a flashlight. Travel outside of the city is not advised after dark or under less than ideal weather conditions. Thick fog is also common during certain times of the year, impairing visibility.
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 percent.
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.
Taxi cabs are safe and dependable; however, travelers are encouraged to negotiate the price in advance. Taxi cabs also customarily pick up multiple passengers. If you do not want this, advise the cab driver in advance. The cost for a non-shared taxi will be 10 times the normal fare.
Security at the Asmara International Airport 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 the 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 travelers may have their passport and entry documents heavily scrutinized. Airport personnel heavily screen personal effects coming into Eritrea to discourage individuals from importing bulk items for resale. GPS devices and satellite phones are prohibited and are subject to confiscation. Eritreans departing are required to have exit visas. Airport security lacks technology to detect fraudulent documents.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED ASMARA AS BEING A LOW-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
There are known opposition/separatist groups that operate along the border areas. Most of these groups are primarily focused on small-scale attacks against the government (military outposts, military vehicles, economic enterprises that provide hard currency for the government). Foreigners who wander into those areas are subject to being targeted. Organizations like Eritrean Islamic Jihad (now known as the “Islamic Salvation Movement”) are mainly focused on opposing the current government, have overall motives of establishing a caliphate in the Horn of Africa, and would likely be a threat to U.S. and other 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 tight grip on the most densely populated parts of Eritrea (Massawa, Keren, Asmara).
Eritrea is very concerned about its relationship with Ethiopia.
In March 2015, there was an explosion at the Bisha Mining Company (a Canadian and Eritrean venture), which reported that the incident was an “act of vandalism.” The government, as well as some media and blog sites reported that it was an attack carried out by Ethiopia, while others stated that the attackers and method of attack were unknown.
Tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea remains a concern, and while border skirmishes are not uncommon, attacks further into Eritrea are not common.
There is a growing anti-American and -Western sentiment among Eritreans. The majority of incidents have not escalated above a verbal altercation.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED ASMARA AS BEING A HIGH-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
The government has not been granting new building permits, which has prompted individuals to build without them. In response, the government began bulldozing residences built without valid permits. In 2015, there were protests against these housing demolitions. This sparked a demonstration and protest in Adi Keih, approximately 110 kilometers south of Asmara, with students blocking bulldozers. Two students reportedly died.
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 slipping in), it is unlikely that the Eritrean population would be easily radicalized.
Asmara is predominately Orthodox Christian, while the lowlands of Eritrea are predominately Muslim. The Embassy is not aware of any religious tensions.
The government only recognizes Islam, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Orthodox Christianity and regularly persecutes those of unrecognized religions, specifically Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals. The Jehovah Witnesses International publicizes 55 JW believers have been incarcerated. A number of locally employed staff have been jailed 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.
Because Eritrea is geographically situated on a fault line, earthquakes are possible.
Frequent power failures cause even popular areas to go dark 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, and safeguards found in Western factories are often absent. Safety training for employees is rare, so a certain number of deaths at factories occur each year.
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.
Eritrea has very strict drug laws, and penalties are harsh.
Police generally do not speak English; communication can be difficult.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
The Travel Warning emphasizes the Embassy’s inability to assist in cases of arrest of American citizens, especially those who are dual-nationals of Eritrean descent. The government does not notify the U.S. Embassy when American citizens are arrested, and they will not allow an official American to visit the detainee.
It is recommended that if an American is harassed or detained, s/he should call or have a friend call the Embassy (Tel: 291-1-120004) and inform the Embassy of the circumstances. If an American is harassed by the police, s/he should attempt to get names of the arresting officer and provide that information to the Embassy. This may be very difficult due to language barriers, or officer names may not be provided. The Embassy will do as much as possible to assist U.S. citizens detained or arrested in Eritrea, but the Eritrean government is generally not cooperative.
Crime Victim Assistance
The Embassy’s experience has been that local police have a willingness to assist but sometimes lack the capability. It is possible that police 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. Most crimes are handled by one of the district’s stations. However, if a crime involves corruption or the diplomatic community, it is referred to law enforcement headquarters for investigation. Any traffic accidents or other traffic violations are handled by the traffic police. The Embassy highly recommends that an American victim of a crime also report the incident to the Embassy because it is unlikely that the local police will share that information.
There is a centralized police service that investigates crimes and enforces traffic laws. Eritrea is divided into six districts. Maekel (meaning “Central”) District encompasses Asmara and the surrounding areas. Each district is divided into areas of responsibility, which are assigned 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. Military police are responsible for responding to protests, riots, or other civil disturbances. Although the Embassy is told that 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. At one time, this unit provided static police protection at most diplomatic missions in Asmara. In 2011, the unit ceased static protection. The government has indicated that they would still provide mobile and foot patrols. 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 also 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 basically police officers with more specific and restricted mandates and are sometimes (particularly during large national holidays or events such as the May 24 celebration) specifically instructed to check the documents of pedestrians to ensure they have complied with the National Service.
Travelers must bring their own medical supplies, prescription drugs, and preventative medicines. Doctors and hospitals expect payment to be rendered at the time of service for foreigners. Travelers should check with the American Citizen Services section at the U.S. Embassy for the most current information. For more information, please 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: 00-44-20-8762-8133
SOS Geneva: 00-41-22-785-6464
The policy of the U.S. Embassy is to stabilize and evacuate. Those individuals not in critical need of medical care can be evacuated via commercial air. The Embassy uses SOS flights for emergency evacuation. There were issues regarding air access for SOS flights; however, those issues have largely been resolved.
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
Malaria is prevalent in the coastal areas and western lowlands. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended when traveling to these areas.
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Eritrea.
OSAC Country Council Information
There is currently no active Country Council in Asmara. Please contact OSAC’s Africa team if you are interested in private-sector engagement in Asmara, or have questions about OSAC’s Country Council programs.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
The U.S. Embassy is located at 179 Alaa Street.
Hours of Operation: Mon-Thur 0800-1800, Fri 0800-1200
Embassy Contact Numbers
Regional Security Officer: 291-1-120004 ext 2778 or 291-1-124367
Embassy Operator: 291-1-120004
Medical Unit: 291-1-120004 ext 2156 or 291-1-120342
Consular Affairs: 291-1-120004 ext 2415 or 291-1-120342
Pol/Econ: 291-1-120004 ext 2174
The U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. citizens traveling to Eritrea register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
Eritrea Country Information Sheet