How safe is it to visit Sri Lanka?

Sebastian Liu
Global Threat Analyst, APAC

Dr Adrian Hyzler
Chief Medical Officer

In the latest of our “how safe is it to visit…” series, we shed light on the risks involved when travelling to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka situation report

Overall, Sri Lanka is assessed by Healix to be a MODERATE security risk country due to several security-related factors. Sri Lanka is an island located off the south coast of the Indian subcontinent and its largest city, Colombo, stretches across 30 miles (50km) along the west coast of the island. The metropolitan area of Colombo – which is considered the financial capital of the country – has a population of more than 5.6 million people, and is the main port of entry for international travellers. A state of emergency is currently in place in the country, following the 21st April explosions that targeted churches and luxury hotels across Colombo and Negombo in the Western province, and Batticaloa in the Eastern province.

Travellers face a HIGH risk of terrorism while in-country and the risk of unrest is elevated in the short-to-medium term following the 21st April explosions. 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, alongside minority communities of Hindus, Sunni Muslims, and Christians. The government has stated that two little-known domestic Islamist militant groups, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and the Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), were involved in the 21st April attack, resulting in rising sectarian sentiments against the minority Muslim community. Violence against the minority Muslim community has been reported in North Western province, resulting in at least one fatality.

Sri Lanka has had a turbulent history, with the civil war spanning more than two decades and resulting in vast bloodshed and the displacement of more than 10,000 people. Even after the end of the war in 2009, there remains heavily militarisation of the Northern province, including Mullaittivu, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya; a 2017 study found that there is at least one soldier for every two civilians in the Mullaitivu district, making it one of the most militarised regions in the world. Operational risks are also elevated by the presence of remaining landmines in the Northern and Eastern provinces, particularly in Ampara, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Vavuniya.

Primary risks

Terrorism

The risk of terrorism is HIGH in Sri Lanka. Historically, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist militant group staged bombings throughout the country, targeting both public transport services and military bases. The conflict with the LTTE ended in 2009 when the government announced that it had defeated the group through its military operations. While the LTTE has not been linked to an attack in the past decade, there is a rising and credible threat of Islamist militancy in the country. The 21st April explosions killed at least 253 people, including dozens of foreign nationals, reflecting the responsible groups’ capabilities to inflict SIGNIFICANT casualties and damage.

Despite the Sri Lankan government blaming domestic threat actors, the Islamic State (IS) militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The coordination, sophistication, and geographic reach of the attack suggest the involvement of a foreign organisation, as both the NTJ and JMI had no history of large-scale attacks and were relatively unknown threat actors within the country. The IS claim of responsibility could evidence where this foreign support is derived from, though no definitive link to the group has yet been ascertained. The attack demonstrates the threat that Islamist groups pose, as well as the expressed intent of IS to increase operations in South Asia.

In the short-to-medium term, the heightened security presence and intelligence sharing between agencies following the explosions are likely to partially mitigate the risk of further attacks. Security operations targeting the perpetrators and suspected members of militant groups are expected to continue in the coming weeks. The militants involved in the 21st April explosions were known to utilise family networks to avoid detection and had undertaken detailed planning including the utilisation of safe houses. Accordingly, Healix assesses that further attacks in the short term cannot be ruled out.

Unrest

The risk of unrest is considered to be MODERATE in Sri Lanka. Demonstrations related to political, religious and socio-economic developments are common and occur sporadically throughout the country. Other triggers for social unrest include student activism and tensions between ethnic and religious groups. Presidential elections are due to be held before the end of 2019, and there is a credible risk of violence owing to the current political tensions. While no date has yet been formally announced, there is typically an uptick in protests in the lead-up to, and aftermath of, election cycles.

Colombo is often a flashpoint for protests. Demonstrations are frequently held in the vicinity of Temple Trees (the presidential office), Fort Railway Station, Town Hall, Galle Face roundabout and Victoria Park. The most recent bout of widespread demonstrations occurred from October to November 2018 amid a constitutional crisis; the incumbent president attempted, and subsequently failed, to remove the incumbent prime minister through unconstitutional means. While this situation has been resolved, political tensions remain heightened and should be closely monitored.

The risk of unrest is elevated in the short-to-medium term owing to rising sectarian sentiments against the minority Muslim community following the events on 21st April. Violence has been reported in areas of the North Western and Western provinces; dozens of Muslim-owned shop, residences, and mosques were vandalised and torched across districts from 12th – 13th May. On 13th May, a Muslim man was killed by protesters in the North Western’s Puttalam district. A curfew, extending beyond the affected localised areas, can be enforced at short notice. Social media and messaging platforms may also be temporarily banned to prevent the spread of communal violence. Protesters have also been known to block major highways during protests, which can have a significant logistical impact. This is either conducted by protesters physically blocking traffic or by placing items, such as burning tyres, in the middle of highways.

Crime

Healix assesses the risk of criminality to be MODERATE in Sri Lanka, with petty criminality posing the predominant risk to travellers. The total number of crimes reported in all areas of Colombo increased last year, and petty crime can occur in tourist areas, as well as public transport hubs, such as the central Fort and Maradana Railway Stations, where travellers are more prone to incidents of theft. Busy marketplaces and bazaars, like the Pettah bazaar district, also have increased numbers of pickpocketing reported. There have also been reports of thefts from several large hotels in the country.

There is an increased risk of criminality after dark in many areas of Sri Lanka. Within Colombo, the Fort and Pettah areas, as well as Kompannavidiya in Colombo 2, are known hotspots for crime after dark. Criminals are mostly known to target lone individuals, particularly women, when walking along poorly-lit and deserted beaches. While the majority of incidents are non-violent, there have been incidents of violence being used when the victim refuses to hand over valuables.

A number of sexually-motivated crimes in Colombo, as well as in a number of beach resorts, has also been observed. The majority of incidents are non-physical in nature and involve cat-calling and verbal harassment, which can be particularly intimidating. However, there have also been a growing number of physical assaults reported where victims have been groped or touched inappropriately, alongside an increase in the number of reported drink-spiking incidents. The majority of sexually-motivated incidents occur in and around nightclubs and popular hotels. In April 2018, a number of men were arrested for sexual assault after targeting foreign women at a hotel in Mirissa; the security forces have subsequently increased the level of visible policing at beach resorts.

In addition to such crimes, reports suggest that there has been an increase in serious crimes in the country, linked to an increase in organised criminal activity and drug-related crime. Although foreign nationals are unlikely to be specifically targeted, the incidental risk of violence persists. While the Sri Lankan police force is becoming increasingly professional, the MODERATE impact of crime can still be attributed to the lack of police officer training, as well as fluency in the English language. Response time varies and can be lengthy depending on the type of incident, contributing to the MODERATE impact of crime.

Additional risks

Travellers in Sri Lanka face a HIGH risk of natural disasters countrywide. This includes cyclones, landslides, flooding and tsunamis; all of which have the potential to result in fatalities and widespread damage. Flooding is the most common form of natural disaster in Sri Lanka. This risk is significantly heightened during the country’s two monsoon seasons; the south-western monsoon season runs from May to September, while the north and eastern monsoon season runs from October to January. Monsoons often result in flooding and landslides, and there have routinely been reports of fatalities.

The risk posed by flooding is particularly high around coastal areas. The worst flooding in 14 years hit the south-western areas of the country in May 2017; 194 people were killed, around half a million people were affected, and international aid was dispatched to the worst-affected areas. The coastal district of Matara, as well as the inland town of Ratnapura, were particularly affected. In May 2018, at least 21 people were killed, and over 150,000 people affected by flooding. The impact of flooding is often exacerbated by the absence of appropriate drainage infrastructure.

Landslides are also common due to ongoing deforestation, inappropriate infrastructure and unstable terrain. The most affected areas by landslides are located in the south. This includes Ratnapura, Badulla, Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Matale districts.

HEALIX HEALTH AND SECURITY RISK MAP

An invaluable visual aid that helps you to better understand the local risk environment of your operations.

Healix advice

  • Travel to Sri Lanka can continue with heightened security awareness following the terror attack on 21st April: In the short term, travellers are advised to stay with personal contacts or reside in secure apartment rentals, booked through reliable sites, such as Airbnb. If residing in hotels, refrain from spending time in publicly-accessible areas and opt for in-room check-in and dining where possible.
  • Increased vigilance should be maintained when visiting other potential target locations: This includes places of worship, hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls, tourist attractions, transport hubs, religious institutions, government offices, military facilities, western embassies, and foreign commercial interests. Travellers should minimise time spent in the foyer and other publicly-accessible areas, as these generally experience high volumes of casualties during attacks. Remain vigilant of any suspicious behaviour or packages and immediately leave the area and inform the security force if anything untoward is detected.
  • Liaise with local contacts and monitor local media outlets to stay abreast of potential protests: Minimise time spent at flashpoints for unrest, including places of worship. If a crowd of protesters is encountered, it is best to vacate the area immediately and return to secure office buildings or accommodation until the situation is contained. Do not stop to watch or film protests as this could threaten personal safety.
  • Refrain from using public transportation in Sri Lanka: Public buses are usually overcrowded and poorly maintained. Tuk-tuks are common and are often used as a means of local transport. However, poor vehicle maintenance can make these unsafe. If used, taxis should be booked via an accredited company, or through the hotel. It is not advisable to flag taxis down in the street. Many taxis will be metered, and it is important to ask that the meter is turned on at the start of the trip. Taxi scams are common, and taxi drivers may claim the meter is broken to charge an inflated fare. Taxis without meters will typically bargain a price prior to departure.
  • For longer overland moves, it may be advisable to source an accredited local driver: Local drivers are likely to know the best routes to take and will be familiar with road and driving conditions. All longer journeys should be conducted during daylight hours where possible. The viability of the route selected should be confirmed prior to departure and should take into account road and weather conditions. Heavy rains may lead to inaccessible roads for days and lead to an elevated risk of landslides. Stick to established and heavily travelled routes. Security managers should ensure that employees are aware of, and able to recognise and avoid any area that has been cordoned off for landmine clearance.
  • Maintain a low profile and avoid overt displays of wealth: Those displaying jewellery, designer bags, cameras and mobile phones are more likely to be targeted by petty criminals. Leave non-essential valuables in your hotel safe, or avoid bringing them into the country at all. If you are carrying valuables, keep them close on your possession and not in exposed pockets. Keep your bags and valuables facing away from traffic during pedestrian travel. You should also remain aware of your surroundings and, where possible, avoid non-essential pedestrian travel after dark. In the event of a robbery, never resist because the attacker is liable to be armed; remain compliant and avoid aggravating the attacker.
  • Communicate with colleagues and ascertain the whereabouts of each other’s location: Maintain a reliable communication platform and protocol with security managers as the government may temporarily ban social media and messaging tools at short notice.
  • Anticipate logistical issues regarding the viability of routes and increased number of security checkpoints: Liaise with local contacts, drivers and fixers to verify the status of routes prior to departure. Ensure that relevant travel documents and tickets are kept securely on your possession in the event of identity checks at checkpoints or roadblocks. Monitor local media outlets for developments and further potential security threats. Utilise the ‘Watch Country’ function on Healix’s Travel Oracle app to receive notifications on alerts for security events occurring in the country.

How Healix can help employers with their Duty of Care

Employers are advised to conduct itinerary and profile-specific risk assessments prior to the deployment of employees to Sri Lanka. The US State Department, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) continue to maintain the second highest tier of travel advisory levels for Sri Lanka, advising nationals to reconsider travel or avoid non-essential travel. Corporate travel insurance policies are known to contain exclusions that negate or void benefits should the relevant authorities recommend against travel to a certain country. Employers should monitor for security developments and stay updated for possible changes to embassy travel advisory levels.

Employees should be aware of the deteriorating security risk trend, especially for parts of the country including districts in the North Western and Western provinces. Global travel security providers, like Healix, can support business travellers in-country with dedicated intelligence and operational teams that monitor on-the-ground developments and provide logistical in-situ support and protective teams. Healix provides many bespoke consultancy services, including written assessment and personal security and destination awareness training should employees be required to travel to higher risk areas in Sri Lanka.

Health risks

Compared to other similar economies, Sri Lanka has a good standard of healthcare, though well below that of European and North American countries. A universal public healthcare system is accessible by citizens and residents of the country and most services are free. Nevertheless, there is a marked variation throughout the country, with good hospitals in the major cities but limited facilities in rural areas. Aside from western and modern medical treatments offered by doctors, many people in Sri Lanka still use traditional medicine. Emergency services in Colombo are reasonably equipped and well-staffed, but outside of the capital they are limited.

There are a number of reputable private hospital chains throughout the country providing a good level of care but they are expensive so private health insurance is essential. In more severe illnesses or injuries, medical evacuation to another country with better health facilities is likely to be the only option.

All travellers should be up-to-date with routine vaccination courses and boosters as recommended in their national immunisation schedules. These vaccinations include the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and diphtheria-tetanus-polio (DTP) vaccine. In the current climate of measles outbreaks all over the world it is essential that all travellers and expats are fully immunised, with the recommended two doses of MMR.

Anyone at increased risk of seasonal influenza virus should remember that they will still be more vulnerable between the months of April and September in Sri Lanka, and indeed anywhere in the southern hemisphere, and should make sure they are up-to-date with the flu vaccine. It is always wise to remember to keep an eye on the international news stations for information regarding any disease outbreaks, such as avian flu for example, as you may need to take additional precautions. Those at increased risk of infectious diseases due to work, lifestyle choice or underlying health conditions should also be up-to-date with additional recommended vaccines. This could include:

  • Hepatitis B (2% or more of the population are known or thought to be persistently infected with the hepatitis B virus and this equates to an intermediate/high prevalence)
  • Japanese Encephalitis (known to be present all year and a particular risk in those spending time in areas where the mosquito breeds such as rice fields, marshlands, or pig farming areas)
  • Rabies
  • Tuberculosis
  • Tick Borne Encephalitis (TBE).

There is no risk of yellow fever in Sri Lanka, but under International Health Regulations, a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required from travellers over nine months of age arriving from countries with risk of yellow fever transmission and for travellers having transited for more than 12 hours through an airport of a country with risk of yellow fever transmission.

There is no recommendation to take anti-malaria tablets for Sri Lanka. There is a low risk of malaria in the area north of Vavuniya in Sri Lanka and a very low risk in the rest of Sri Lanka: awareness of risk and bite avoidance is recommended. There is no risk of malaria in Colombo and Kandy.

Dengue is a viral infection transmitted by mosquitoes which predominantly feed between dawn and dusk. It causes a flu-like illness, which can occasionally develop into a more serious life-threatening form of the disease. There has been a significant increase in cases of dengue in early 2019, with a large number of cases in Colombo and Jaffna. There is no international vaccine and therefore bite avoidance measures are essential.

Travellers are advised to reduce the risk of illnesses spread by contaminated food and drinks, including travellers’ diarrhoea, hepatitis A and typhoid, by following food and water hygiene advice. Expats and travellers should either boil all drinking water or only drink bottled water, avoiding ice cubes and raw food. Make sure to contact your health practitioner six to eight weeks before travel to ensure that there is sufficient time for all health considerations. Finally, ensure that there is appropriate private health insurance for the duration of the trip.

FIND OUT MORE

Healix International can deploy at short notice to conduct Project Risk Assessments, Site Security Audits, Evacuation Planning, Emergency Response Planning, Threat and Risk Assessments and Training, as well as offer Embedded Security Managers upon request (see Security Consultancy & Bespoke Services). If you are interested in commissioning these services, or would like to request a capability statement for your country of operations, please email us at GSOC@healix.com.

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