Overall Crime and Safety Situation
U.S. Embassy Colombo 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 SRI LANKA & MALDIVES AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR CRIME DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Please review OSAC’s Sri Lanka-specific webpage for proprietary analytic reports, Consular Messages, and contact information.
The majority of crimes against Americans continue to be petty crime (pickpocketing, hotel room thefts, fraud).
- However, in 2015, an American residing in Colombo was the victim of a home-invasion robbery attempt. The suspects in this case were charged and convicted. This appears to have been a crime of opportunity.
Street hustlers (touts), who may be associated with petty crimes, are common around popular hotels, shopping areas, and other tourist sites. Many of these crimes are preventable.
If staying in a hotel, lock valuables in the safe. There have been reports of thefts from many large hotels. While in hotels, lodges, or guest houses lock all locks on doors/windows.
Official 2016 crime statistics indicate a general downward trend for serious crime in the cities of Colombo, Anuradapura, Galle, Gampha, Kalutara, Matara, Nugegoda, Ratnapura, and Tangalle. In Colombo, the districts reporting higher levels of crime were Borella, Slave Island, and Maradana. Most violent crime occurs within the local community.
American businesses have reported instances of threats and intimidation over business dealings and labor disputes.
Media, police, and diplomatic reporting indicates that sexual crimes against women, including Western women, is a rising concern. While most reported incidents involved non-physical acts (cat calls, leers, verbal harassment), there have been several serious incidents (threats of sexual violence, groping, rape). Some incidents involved the surreptitious spiking of drinks. Western women have been targeted with varied levels of harassment/assaults at night clubs, hotels, and to a lesser degree on public streets in Colombo. Incidents have also occurred at tourist beaches and smaller hotels in the Southern province. Sporting events can also be hostile or uncomfortable environments for foreign women, especially in economy seating areas.
Visitors are encouraged to use cash for routine transactions when possible. Credit/debit card fraud is a persistent threat. Several foreign nationals and organized groups have been arrested for complicity in financial crimes. If a credit card is used, travelers should pay close attention to ensure it is not copied or photographed. Avoid using credit cards, especially if it involves the card being taken out of view. There have been reports of employees at reputable businesses (restaurants, chain grocery stores) wearing data skimming devices in their clothing and scanning a victim’s credit card or using other methods to steal credit card information. ATM skimming is also a threat. If you use an ATM, be on the lookout for skimming devices. Cover keypads with your other hand. The following websites provide more information on ATM skimming, to include photos of skimming devices:
Other Areas of Concern
There are no restrictions on foreigners traveling to any province in Sri Lanka. Visitors should take particular care when travelling to the areas of the north and east that are former conflict zones. These areas may contain both marked and unmarked mine fields and unexploded ordinance, making travel outside of major roadways potentially dangerous.
Road Safety and Road Conditions
Vehicular traffic moves on the left. Traffic in urban areas is very congested. Narrow two-lane highways combined with overloaded trucks, dangerously-driven buses, motorized trishaws (tuk-tuks), and motorbikes (and sometimes elephants, cows, ox carts, and bicycles) make driving challenging and dangerous. Despite efforts to improve the roads, some in the former conflict zones, remain in bad condition. One-way streets may not be clearly marked and occasionally change direction without notice.
Drivers are notoriously reckless, and vehicle accidents should be considered a principal threat for visitors. Travelers should drive defensively. In the event of an accident, crowds might gather and become aggressive, particularly if the accident involves a bus, tuk-tuk, or taxi. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.” Many visitors opt to hire a car and driver.
In 2016, the police continued efforts to enforce traffic laws more vigorously. Speed traps and traffic enforcement checkpoints are becoming more common.
Public Transportation Conditions
Individuals choosing to hire a tuk-tuk should select one with a working meter; otherwise, it is advisable to agree on a fare beforehand to avoid arguments at the final destination. Beware of tuk-tuk or taxi drivers offering “special” tours or access to festivals or gem shops. These are scams.
Train travel is common and inexpensive. If using trains, visitors should keep a close watch on possessions, especially in economy cars. There is a scam wherein Sri Lankans in Colombo will fill trains bound for the tourist areas and take up all of the seats. They will then sell their seats to tourists and visitors for a profit and exit the train before it departs.
The RSO advises against the use of public buses, as they are often overcrowded, driven recklessly, and involved in serious accidents. Reports indicate a disproportionately large percentage of accidents are caused by buses.
Inter-city luxury bus services, which do not pick up passengers along their routes and do not take on more passengers than they are able to seat, are considered safe for foreign travelers.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SRI LANKA & MALDIVES AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR TERRORIST ACTIVITY DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns
On May 19, 2009, the government announced that it had achieved victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE leadership did not survive the war, and there have been no terrorist attacks since 2009. Throughout its 26-year insurgency, the LTTE targeted Sri Lankan security forces, government officials, and civilians with assassinations and suicide bombings at political rallies, government buildings, economic targets, and military installations. American citizens were never specifically targeted. In March 2014, police and local media reported the disruption of a small, pro-LTTE cell involved in spreading separatist propaganda in the Northern province. Dozens of detentions and arrests stemmed from an incident that involved one police officer being shot by the alleged leader of the cell. The alleged cell leader and two associates were killed during a police/military manhunt near Vavuniya. Some civil society activists were arrested or detained in a crackdown that followed the investigation.
In September 2014, al-Qa’ida announced the formation of a new branch, al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which could represent an elevated threat landscape in South Asia. The same month, ISIS released a recorded call for the killing of Americans (and Coalition members). The tape encouraged lone-offender and target-of-opportunity attacks. The transnational capabilities of select terrorist groups, ease of international travel, the availability of black-market weapons and explosives all require U.S. travelers to be vigilant in their personal security practices, especially at locations frequented by Westerners.
In July 2015, media outlets reported the death of a Sri Lankan national fighting as a member of ISIS killed in Syria by an air-strike. The media report stated this was the first known Sri Lankan to join ISIS.
In the Maldives, there has been only one recorded act of terrorism: a 2007 bombing in Sultan Park in Male that injured 12 foreign tourists. In September 2015, a small explosion occurred on the boat carrying President Yameen Abdul Gayoom. President Yameen was unhurt, but his wife and two others on the boat sustained injuries. Maldivian authorities declared that the explosion was a targeted attack on the President, but no evidence was ever released that the explosion has been an explosive device rather than an accident.
There have been no specific, credible threats (or attacks) directed against U.S. citizens or interests in Sri Lanka or the Maldives.
- In 2014, two Sri Lankan nationals were arrested (in India and Malaysia) amid Indian allegations that they were involved in a plot to strike U.S. or Israeli interests in southern India.
- In Maldives, reports have indicated a number of Maldivian nationals have traveled to Syria over the last two years to join ISIS. This could have an impact on anti-Western sentiment and/or activities if/when these individuals return to the Maldives.
A significant spike in anti-U.S. protests and rhetoric coincided with the March 2014 UNHRC resolution calling for an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Protests occurred in Colombo and in the Northern and Eastern provinces (Kilinochchi, Jaffna, Trincomalee, Muttur, and Ampara). In July and August 2014, anti-U.S. protests also spiked following Israeli military action in Gaza. These demonstrations remained peaceful, though American and Israeli flags were burned on a few occasions. There were no large anti-U.S. demonstrations in Sri Lanka in 2015. Since January 2016, there have been two small anti-U.S. protests in front of the U.S. Embassy; neither resulted in violence.
Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE HAS ASSESSED SRI LANKA & MALDIVES AS BEING A MEDIUM-THREAT LOCATION FOR POLITICAL VIOLENCE DIRECTED AT OR AFFECTING OFFICIAL U.S. GOVERNMENT INTERESTS.
Elections have been volatile periods in Sri Lanka. During the brief campaign leading to the January 8, 2015, presidential election, observers noted a spike in targeted political violence directed against opposition political figures, organizers, and supporters. Monitors tracked more than 50 acts of election-related violence, including one death. A strikingly peaceful transition followed the January 9 announcement of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena’s victory. He was sworn in without incident.
In the weeks preceding the August 2015 parliamentary elections, a similar spike in violence occurred. A drive-by shooting in Colombo targeted an opposition rally resulting in two deaths and several injured. Since the parliamentary elections, there has been very little political violence reported.
Local government elections are planned to be held in 2017 that could lead to volatile situations depending on political developments.
Demonstrations in Colombo occur regularly. Most demonstrations are peaceful, resulting only in traffic congestion; however, some have ended in violence between the protestors and police or opposition groups. Some protests over Sri Lankan political issues have resulted in violent clashes, gun violence, and casualties.
- In 2016, some demonstrations involved minor confrontations with police using water cannon and tear gas.
While the majority of demonstrations are related to domestic politics, protests directed toward Western embassies and international organizations are not unknown. Common venues for demonstrations in Colombo are the Fort Railway Station, Viharamahadevi “Victoria” Park, Hyde Park, and surrounding junctions near Town Hall (Lipton Circus, Liberty Circus, Pittala Junction).
In Maldives, former President Mohammed Nasheed was arrested on terrorism-related charges in February 2015. This arrest led to a string of violent protests in Male. Later in 2015, the sitting Minister of Defense was also arrested on terrorism charges. In November 2015, then President Yameen declared a 30-day state of emergency, but the declaration was rescinded after less than two weeks. Due to on-going political turmoil, there is the possibility of protest activity in Male.
Sri Lanka is a country of 21 million residents, two national languages (Sinhala, Tamil), and four major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity), with an approximate ethnic representation of 74% Sinhalese, 18% Tamil, 7% Muslim, and 1% Eurasian. Ethno-religious tensions have sparked demonstrations and mob violence against places of worship.
- In June 2014, militant Buddhist monks and supporting mobs targeted Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwala, near the tourist beach town of Bentota (southern edge of Western province). A temporary curfew coincided with vandalism, arson, and physical attacks against Muslims (three were killed), their homes, and their businesses. The violence followed a rally by militant Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena, which was reportedly prompted by an assault against a monk by Muslim youths days earlier.
Places of worship (evangelical Christian churches, mosques) have been the target of lesser forms of harassment and intimidation. Supporters of militant Buddhism have increased their criticism of the government, and several protests have been held against the arrest and detention of Buddhist monks implicated in intimidation of or violence against religious minorities.
Sri Lanka is affected by severe flooding brought on by the northeast monsoon (October-December) and the southwest monsoon (May-July). The heavy rains can be unpredictable and often impact the hill country in the central regions. With haphazard development contributing to soil erosion, landslides are a concern. Landslides may block roads including some of the major highways.
- In May 2016, an intense period of rain over several days caused flooding throughout the country and landslides that destroyed several villages, with over 200 people either confirmed killed or never found.
Travelers should pay close attention to local news reporting and heed advice from the local government during adverse weather.
Approximately 50 fatal industrial accidents and about 3,000 non-fatal accidents are reported annually. These were only reported figures; a large number of accidents are not reported. Approximately 60-70% were due to technological and mechanical defects (unsuitable machinery to fit the physical make up of Sri Lankans, defective parts, unguarded machines, damaged electrical cables, worn-out hoisting ropes), while 30-40% were due to unsafe behavior. The boom in construction since the end of the war has contributed to a great number of construction-related accidents resulting in death or serious injury.
Reports of economic espionage are rare; however, thefts of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are a much larger problem. Piracy of sound recordings, movies, and software is widespread. Local agents of well-known U.S. and international companies representing recording, software, movie, clothing, and consumer product industries have complained that a lack of IPR protection damages to their business. Sri Lanka is a party to intellectual property agreements with the U.S. and the WTO. Infringement of IPR is a punishable offense under both criminal and civil law; however, enforcement remains a significant problem. Police occasionally raid counterfeit sellers, including counterfeit garment sellers, though it is rare for the police to act without a formal complaint and assistance from an aggrieved party.
Privacy-related concerns involving Americans have been low. There have been few reported incidents of increased scrutiny or harassment of some Western travelers associated with civil society outreach or NGO activities.
Personal Identity Concerns
Female travelers should consider travelling with companions whenever possible and remain vigilant in their personal security practices, especially at night.
Sri Lanka has a small, but ever increasing, drug problem. The government remains committed to targeting drug traffickers and implementing nationwide demand reduction programs. Sri Lanka is not a significant producer of narcotics or precursor chemicals, but it is playing an increasing role as a transshipment route for heroin from Pakistan, India, and other locations. A 2013 seizure of 250kg of heroin (valued at approximately U.S.$19 million) at the port of Colombo was unprecedented, and law enforcement disruption efforts continued a steady rate in 2014. Officials are addressing a modest upsurge in consumption of heroin, cannabis, and ecstasy. Penalties for illegal drug use and trafficking are severe: up to and including death. 2016 saw a major increase in seizures of cocaine; three shipments of 301 kg, 220 kg, and 800 kg were seized by police and customs while transiting the port of Colombo.
Kidnappings occur infrequently and mainly within the local community. The motive is usually political or business-related. Victims and victims’ families have blamed kidnappings on security services (extrajudicial detentions/arrests called white van kidnappings). No American citizens have been reported to be victims of kidnapping.
Although allegations of corruption and politicization of security services was commonplace in the past, the Sri Lanka Police Service (SLPS) is becoming increasingly professional, specifically in their specialized units. However, police officers often lack resources/training, especially at the lower ranks. There can be problems with communications between the police and American visitors, as police do not always speak English well. Response time varies and can be lengthy depending on the type of incident; police response to traffic-related incidents can be inefficient.
Carry a passport copy rather than the original and leave an itinerary with someone you trust.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
In cases of police detention or harassment, American citizens should attempt to take note of the badge numbers of the officers involved and notify the American Citizen Services (ACS) section of the Embassy as soon as possible. In some cases, the police have detained third-country nationals of Sri Lankan origin for extended periods and without consular notification. However, U.S. citizens of Sri Lankan origin have not reported this problem. The ACS section of the Embassy can be contacted during business hours at (94) 11-249-8686 or via email. After hours, please contact the Embassy duty officer at (94) 11-077-725-6307.
Crime Victim Assistance
If you are the victim of a crime, you should contact the local police and the American Citizen Services section of the U.S. Embassy. The Embassy staff can help you find appropriate medical care, contact family members/friends, and explain how funds may be transferred. Consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and how to find an attorney if needed.
The emergency response line in Sri Lanka is 119. An additional police emergency line for Colombo is (94) 11-243-3333. Although emergency services personnel answer the number 24 hours a day, police responsiveness may vary.
In Maldives, law enforcement assistance can be obtained by contacting the Maldives Police Service at 960-332-2111.
The Sri Lanka Police Service (SLPS) falls under the Ministry of Law & Order and Southern Development. Through the Inspector General of Police, the SLPS report to the Secretary for Law & Order and Southern Development. The SLPS is comprised of approximately 60 functional divisions. The primary divisions and their purposes are as follows:
Inspector General of Police: The senior-most police official.
Senior Deputy Inspectors General: One S/DIG is assigned to each of nine “ranges” to serve as the senior law enforcement official for each province.
Criminal Investigation Division (CID): Serious and complex criminal investigations, countrywide jurisdiction.
Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB): Illicit narcotics investigations and demand reduction activities.
Special Task Force (STF): Elite police paramilitary unit, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, protective security, special weapons and tactics.
Special Protection Range - President’s Security Division / Prime Minister Security Division / Ministerial Security Division/ Judicial Security Division / Diplomatic Security Division: each specializes in protective duties.
Terrorist Investigation Unit (TID): Terrorism investigations.
The Maldives Police Service (MPS) was established under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs in September 2004 with a limited number of officers. MPS is comprised of approximately 3,000 personnel stationed at their headquarters in Male and in 77 police stations across the archipelago. Some of the primary directorates or commands include:
Commissioner of Police: The senior-most police official.
Professional Standards Command: Internal investigations.
Central Operations Command: Male and Hulhumale city police.
Divisional Operation Commands: Police presence in approximate 20 atolls.
Crime Investigations: Drug enforcement, serious and organized crime, family and child protection, economic crime.
Internal Security Command: Marine police, specialist and custodial operations.
Intelligence Directorate: Primary intelligence and counterterrorism department.
Contact Information for Available Medical Services
The Central Hospital: (94-11) 466-5500
Lanka Hospital: (94-11) 453-0000
Nawaloka Hospital: (94-11) 557-7111, 557-7208
National Hospital: (94-11) 269-1111
Teaching Hospital: (94) 91-223-2176, 223-2250
General Hospital: (94) 26-222-4021, 222-2260
Northern Central Hospital: (94) 21-221 9988
Teaching Hospital: (94) 21-222-2261, 222-7351
ADK (960) 331-3553
50-bed private hospital
Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (960) 333-5335
250-bed government hospital
Available Air Ambulance Services
Pacific Flight Services, Singapore, (65) 648-3756: Pacific Flight Services owns two Lear jets and contracts with specialty medical teams in Singapore to respond to medical emergencies. Pacific Flight Services has a 24-hour call center.
International SOS, Singapore, (65) 63-387-800: International SOS does not own any planes but contracts with other companies for the use of planes. The company has its own medical teams and a 24-hour call center.
CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance
The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
OSAC Country Council Information
The Colombo Country Council meets intermittently approximately 50-75 member organizations. If you are interested in joining Colombo’s Country Council, please email RSO Colombo. Please contact OSAC’s South and Central Asia team with any questions or to join.
U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information
Embassy Address and Hours of Operation
210 Galle Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka
Embassy working hours: 0800-1730, Mon-Thurs, and 0800-1200 Fri
Embassy Contact Numbers
U.S. Embassy Switchboard: (94) 11-249-8500
Embassy Duty Officer: (94) 11-077-725-6307
Consular Section, American Citizen Services (Business Hours Only): (94) 11-249-8686
Regional Security Office: (94) 11-249-8738
RSO email: DS_RSO_COLOMBO@state.gov
Consular coverage for multi-post countries
The ACS Unit provides services to U.S. citizens visiting and residing in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
Virtual Post Presence Maldives: http://maldives.usvpp.gov/
Keep the phone number of the U.S. Embassy and Embassy Duty Officer with you at all times in the event assistance is required. Register with the Embassy in person or online with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
Sri Lanka and Maldives Country Information Sheets