Mongolia 2012 Crime and Safety Report
Stolen items; Theft; Racial Violence/Xenophobia; Transportation Security; Elections; Winter weather; Oil & Energy; Bribery
East Asia & Pacific > Mongolia > Ulaanbaatar
Overall Crime and Safety Situation
Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar are generally safe places to visit, but travelers must always exercise caution and practice good personal security awareness. According to Mongolian National Police statistics, 2011 crime figures saw a slight up-tick in violent crime from the previous year. Most violent crime targeting foreign nationals is for financial gain with street robberies the most common threat to foreign nationals. The vast majority of crime against foreigners occurs in Ulaanbaatar; crime against foreigners in the countryside is very rare. Visitors walking around Ulaanbaatar are advised to carry only the money they need, and they should leave their passports, wallets, and other valuables in the hotel safe or in another secure location. Visitors should be especially cautious at night and in crowded public places, particularly the Narantuul covered market (commonly known as the “Black Market”), within and in front of the State Department store, the central post office, Flower Market shopping center, crowded sporting events, and the bar district along the inner ring road.
A small nationalist movement targets foreign nationals. The movement feeds on the fear that foreign businesses will exploit Mongolians and Mongolia’s natural resources. This movement has staged small protests targeting international mining consortia, and they have vandalized foreign owned businesses. These nationalist groups also advocate a pure Mongolian society and have been involved in xenophobic attacks and aggressive behavior against foreigners in the company of Mongolian women. These same groups are also rumored to have attacked and shaved the heads of Mongolian women that associate with foreign men. However, most Mongolians accept foreigners and are extremely polite and patient hosts. 2011 delivered another year of xenophobic attacks against foreign nationals in Ulaanbaatar with numerous incidents reported to the U.S. Embassy by American citizens. A number of these attacks occurred without provocation, and robbery was not the motive. Attackers targeted the victim based solely on ethnicity or perceived foreign nationality. Foreign national males are most at risk of xenophobic attacks or threats during the late evening hours at nightclubs and bars, especially if they are in the company of a Mongolian woman. Additionally, nationalist groups frequently mistake Asian-Americans for ethnic Chinese or Koreans and may attack without warning or provocation. Asian-Americans and interracial couples should exercise caution when walking the streets of Ulaanbaatar at all times.
Despite these incidents, the atmosphere for Americans is generally welcoming and receptive. There are no visible signs of anti-Americanism displayed by the press or the government.
Driving in Ulaanbaatar is hectic and dangerous. Most Mongolian drivers tend to ignore traffic laws and prefer to drive wherever there is an opening in traffic. This leads to numerous accidents and traffic jams.
Pedestrians should be careful when crossing the streets. Even at crosswalks, vehicles have the right of way and exercise that right. Pedestrians should also be alert to Ulaanbaatar’s many open manholes. Over the past year, a number of pedestrians have been killed or seriously injured falling through an open manhole.
U.S. Embassy personnel are prohibited from driving outside of urban city centers after sundown due to poor road conditions, visibility, and lack of emergency response services on countryside roads. It is advised that foreign visitors wishing to travel outside of Ulaanbaatar make all travel and transportation arrangements through recognized and reputable travel agencies/operators.
Mongolia is generally a peaceful country with few incidents of political violence, violent demonstrations, or civil unrest. However, demonstrations after the parliamentarian elections on July 1, 2008, turned violent resulting in several deaths, scores of serious injuries, and significant destruction of property. At present, very little political violence or unrest exists, and the political process allows for opposing views and appears to be stable. However, Mongolia will see hotly contested parliamentarian elections in June 2012 where results are expected to be close between the competing political parties. In December 2011, Mongolia’s coalition government passed a new election law, which adds an additional ingredient of uncertainty in a Mongolian electorate increasingly skeptical of their elected politicians.
The U.S. Embassy recommends that all Americans avoid political gatherings and demonstrations. Certain large gatherings such as concerts or scenes of an accident also may pose a threat to bystanders.
Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime
There have been no reports of terrorist attacks or indigenous terrorist groups. While some crimes, such as cattle rustling, are considered by the Mongolian National Police to be organized, the police report that there are no known organized criminal groups or gangs.
Due to the ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and the continued threat of terrorist attacks against personnel and institutions, Americans overseas are encouraged to remain vigilant regarding their surroundings and to exercise caution. Americans should avoid large crowds, keep a low profile, and vary routes and times of all routine travel.
International Terrorism or Transnational Terrorism
Mongolian authorities are cognizant that their porous borders might allow for transnational terrorists to enter the country. Authorities closely monitor visitors from countries that have been the home of transnational terrorists. Additionally, Mongolia maintains and supports a military-oriented border police force and takes any attempted illegal crossing into or out of Mongolia’s land border seriously. Travelers attempting to enter or depart Mongolia illegally can expect to be detained and interrogated intensely to determine the traveler’s true intentions or perceived intentions for not following entry and departure procedures.
Large-scale demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience are uncommon.
Although Mongolia does not suffer from serious and frequent earthquakes or severe flooding problems, it does become bitterly cold. From late-September to mid-May, temperatures fall to below zero degrees Fahrenheit and settle in the minus teens for extended periods. Ulaanbaatar is centrally heated by coal-powered power plants, which supply heat from September 15 to May 15. There is no shortage of fuel due to the close proximity of coal mines outside Ulaanbaatar. However, in the mid 1990s Ulaanbaatar’s power plants were on the brink of collapse from a lack of financial and technical support. Foreign donor assistance, including from USAID, helped to refurbish the power plants. Over 70 percent of the city’s electricity and heat is supplied by one power plant that needs renovation. The continued economic growth and resulting demand for power has placed severe strains on the city’s power grid with no viable plans on the table to add to generation capacity anytime soon. A failure in this power plant would have catastrophic consequences for the residents of Ulaanbaatar during the winter season.
Industrial and Transportation Accidents
Mongolia is a landlocked country with limited transportation connections. International flights provide year round service to Berlin, Moscow, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Beijing. A north-south railroad line connects Ulaanbaatar to Russia (Ulan Ude and Irkutsk) and China (Erlian and Beijing). The lack of an all year, paved domestic road network or reliable domestic air network is a significant problem.
The U.S. Embassy prohibits U.S. government personnel from using AeroMongolia and the domestic services of Mongolian International Air Transport (MIAT) for official travel because of uncertainties regarding service and maintenance schedules, aircraft certification, and insurance status. This prohibition does not extend to MIAT’s international flights. The U.S. Embassy relies on EZnis Airways for domestic flights.
During 2011, there were no reports of foreign travelers being kidnapped.
Drugs and Narco-terrorism
Drug addiction and trafficking are a minor but growing problem as disposable incomes continue to grow for most Mongolians. Mongolian National Police view drug trafficking as a serious threat, and foreign travelers in the possession of drugs can face serious jail sentences and can expect an uncertain and opaque judicial process if charges are filed.
Due to strict weight limits by airlines for checked luggage servicing Ulaanbaatar, it is not uncommon for strangers to ask travelers with no check luggage to assume possession of their extra luggage to dodge the excess baggage charge. At no time should an air traveler take possession of a stranger’s belongings or luggage. The risk of contraband in the bag and subsequent penalty is too great a risk to help this ‘traveler in need.’
The primary organization charged with maintaining peace and security is the Mongolian National Police (MNP). Over the past two years, the MNP have made a significant investment to improve their emergency response system in Ulaanbaatar. The MNP have the ability in most instances to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency call to include some cell phone calls. However, if the call is placed by a person who does not speak Mongolian, the caller will face an obvious language barrier to provide details on the request for assistance. The MNP do not have fluent English speakers to occupy emergency dispatch call centers. For a developing country, the MNP have above average resources and emergency response vehicles to respond to requests for assistance.
In Ulaanbaatar, drivers can expect unpredictable and arbitrary traffic stops by the police. Drivers can be stopped by traffic police on foot or be pulled over by a police vehicle for a traffic violation or to check vehicle registration and insurance papers. Traffic police are known to collect on the spot fines or bribes from a driver for a traffic violation or for not having proper paperwork. Travelers are strongly advised to avoid renting a vehicle without a local driver and to have the proper driver license and vehicle paperwork. If a traffic accident occurs, foreign drivers cannot expect a transparent and fair accident investigation by responding traffic police. Frequently, foreign drivers have complained of biased accident investigations where the foreign driver is assigned fault when facts dictate the other local party was at fault.
How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment
If detained or arrested, Americans should contact the Embassy as soon as possible. Most Mongolian police officers are unaware of a foreign national’s right to request consular assistance after an arrest that may require the national to request to speak to a consular official on multiple occasions. Foreigners subjected to a criminal investigation or complaint may be detained or will not be able to leave the country until the charges are cleared, even for petty crimes such as shoplifting. Retaining legal counsel for even minor offenses is strongly encouraged, as the Mongolian legal system is complicated. Foreigners are required to retain and pay for the services of registered translators whether they are the victim of a crime or accused of a crime. Finally, foreigners cannot expect a transparent and objective investigation if accused of a crime. Foreign nationals accused of a crime often report a heavily biased and unlevel playing field through the entire judicial process.
The U.S. Embassy continues to monitor abuse by both Mongolian public and private entities of the country’s requirement for exit visas to exert pressure on foreign investors to settle commercial disputes. The required valid exit visas normally are issued at the port of departure (e.g. the international airport) but may be denied for a variety of reasons including civil disputes, pending criminal investigation, or for immigration violations. If denied for a civil dispute, the visa may not be issued until either the dispute is resolved administratively or a court has rendered a decision. Neither current law nor regulations establish a clear process or timetable for settlement of the issue. Nor does the law allow authorities to distinguish a criminal and civil case when detaining a person. In fact, the Mongolian government maintains the right to detain foreign citizens indefinitely without appeal unit the situation has been resolved. 2010 saw the government tighten and increase enforcement of visa requirements against foreign nationals working in Mongolia to include religious missionaries, non-governmental organizations, charities, multinational companies, and English language schools. This enforcement trend continued in 2011 with a number of non-governmental organizations expressing concerns that they were being unfairly targeted. Mongolian authorities felt foreign national residents were abusing immigration residency or work requirements by not securing the proper work or residency visa before arriving. Americans traveling to Mongolia for work or long-term residency are strongly advised to secure the proper entry visa before arriving and not enter on a temporary tourist visa.
Where to Turn for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime, and Local Police Telephone Numbers
Americans seeking assistance can call the American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy’s Consular section at (976-11) 329-095 during working hours (Monday – Friday, 8:30 am – 5:00 pm) and on the weekends and holidays at (976) 9911-4168. The MNP can be contacted at 102, but there are no English speaking officers on duty.
Few, if any, Mongolian hospitals meet Western standards. Ambulances are unreliable, and medical facilities in the countryside are substandard. While many over the counter drugs such as cold, fever, and painkiller medications are becoming available, visitors should consider bringing enough medications to last for the duration of their visit. Additionally, brand name drugs and medical supplies can be extremely hard to find and are frequently out of stock at the public hospitals. Visitors and tourists with chronic medical conditions should weigh the risks carefully because specialty medicine is unlikely to exist in the country and a pre-existing chronic health condition can quickly escalate into a life threatening medical emergency. Serious medical problems requiring a medical evacuation to a nearby country can cost over $100,000. The U.S. Embassy cannot provide visitors with any medical supplies, medications, or other similar services and interactions.
Contact Information for Medical Care
SOS International – a private, for profit health care provider, opened a clinic in Ulaanbaatar in 2004. They can be reached by telephone at main office number (976-11) 464-325, cell phone number (976) 9911-0335 (English), or cell phone number (976) 9191-3122 (Mongolian). The clinic is expensive and requires payment upon receipt of services. SOS International accepts MasterCard, Visa, or cash as payment for services rendered. It is important that your health insurance be up to date. Filing an insurance claim for reimbursement is the responsibility of the patient.
We highly recommended that foreign visitors/tourists purchase emergency medical evacuation insurance from SOS International or comparable firms for the duration of their visit. Contact SOS International in the U.S. at 1-800-523-6586 for advice. SOS International medical evacuation insurance can be purchased online at www.internationalsos.com/buymembership.
Air Ambulance Services
SOS International provides air ambulance services for Mongolia. However, the Ulaanbaatar SOS branch does not have a dedicated air ambulance assigned to Ulaanbaatar International Airport. A patient suffering a severe medical emergency would be stabilized and monitored at Ulaanbaatar SOS branch or other local hospital until an air ambulance can be flown into Ulaanbaatar.
Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim
Pickpockets, including children, may attempt to jostle, crowd, and rob foreign visitors leaving and entering stores. Likewise, the large and crowded market called Narantuul (also commonly known as “Black Market”), the State Department store, central post office, Flower Market shopping center, Ulaanbaatar’s international airport, crowded sporting events, and other areas frequented by foreigners are favorite haunts of thieves, pickpockets, and aggressive panhandlers. Foreign visitors/travelers are advised to be extremely cautious around the State Department store. The Regional Security Office has confirmed that a professional pickpocket group actively targets foreign nationals in the immediate area with a focus on elderly and young female visitors. A large number of Americans and foreign nationals have reported being pickpocketed and robbed around this area in 2011.
Visitors to Ulaanbaatar are cautioned to avoid taking unmarked “Bandit” taxis and to avoid taxis that are occupied by two or more individuals. Visitors are advised to have someone from the hotel, restaurant, or store call for a taxi from a reliable taxi service and provide an estimated taxi fare. Ulaanbaatar taxi drivers are quick to overcharge foreigners but will usually settle for the correct fare when confronted by the overcharge. Taxis are not normally equipped with fare meters to track the total cost of a ride. On a few rare occasions, the U.S. Embassy has received reports of “Bandit” taxi drivers becoming confrontational with the passengers and demanding the inflated taxi fare through the threat of force. Visitors should have a native speaker write down the address of their destination in Mongolian since many taxi drivers do not speak or read English. Visitors should be aware that marked taxis are only found in Ulaanbaatar, and taxi service in other Mongolian cities is only offered by private drivers.
While there are no locations in Mongolia considered off limits, visitors should be wary of traveling alone in the less developed sections and “Ger Districts” of Ulaanbaatar, especially after dark. The U.S. Embassy does not allow official visitors to stay at the Puma Hotel due to a past dispute with a private American citizen that escalated into a serious altercation affecting the American’s personal safety.
Mongolia’s financial infrastructure is nascent, and the use of credit cards is limited. However, the number of businesses accepting credit cards is growing rapidly with each passing year. The upside is that crimes involving credit cards, such as skimming, have not caught on yet. Travelers will find that using credit cards is quite common in Ulaanbaatar but extremely limited in the countryside. ATMs are becoming common at hotels, major banks, some restaurants, and supermarkets. Travelers should be alert when using ATMs in public places and wary of anyone following them or striking up a friendly conversation in English after using an ATM. Hotels and banks provide official currency exchange, and exchanging U.S. dollars and major foreign currencies in Ulaanbaatar is quite easy. Travelers are advised to bring newer or uncirculated U.S. dollars. Banks and currency exchanges often refuse to convert creased or heavily circulated currency.
Contact the U.S. Embassy during business hours at (976-11) 329-095. For after hours emergencies, contact the embassy duty officer at (976) 9911-4168. Please visit the embassy website at http://ulaanbaatar.usembassy.gov for updated travel advice and advisories. There is no 24-hour American presence at the embassy.
Americans are advised to register with the Consular section located online at https://travelregistration.state.gov. Additionally, all travelers should check with the most recent Consular information sheet on Mongolia located at http://travel.state.gov.
OSAC Country Council
There is no OSAC Country Council in Mongolia. However, the U.S. Embassy works closely with the North American Mongolian Business Council.
Point of contact is Regional Security Officer Timothy B. Feeney, FeeneyTB@state.gov or office telephone (976-11) 329-095.