Saga ends for Sierra Leonean returnees stranded at sea
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, August 28 (UNHCR) - The MV Overbeck arrived in Freetown today, ending five days of drifting on the high seas and bringing home 154 exhausted but relieved Sierra Leonean refugees from Liberia.
On Thursday, the UNHCR-chartered ship docked at Freetown port at 4 pm local time. Passengers were requested to remain onboard while a team of medical specialists from the International Medical Corps went on the ship to identify and treat some reported serious cases, possibly for malaria and dehydration. The UN refugee agency's protection teams worked to identify particularly vulnerable cases, while the Italian non-governmental organisation (NGO), COOPI, took care of separated children.
The passengers were due to get off the boat later on Thursday to receive water, bread and sardines as well as their registration card for further food distribution. They would then be taken to spend the night in Jui transit centre near Freetown, before onward transport can be organised to their final destinations in various parts of Sierra Leone.
Many refugees onboard had reportedly suffered from dehydration and sea sickness when what they believed would be a two-day journey turned into a much longer one - in difficult conditions despite the relatively calm weather.
Fortunately, because the number of refugees on the ship was smaller than initially thought, there was enough food and water to sustain the 154 refugees, 29 crew members and four UNHCR and non-governmental agency staff from Liberian NGO MERCI until their arrival in the Sierra Leonean capital.
The MV Overbeck had left Monrovia on Sunday morning and was scheduled to arrive in Freetown one-and-a-half days later. But a few hours after leaving Monrovia, a technical failure caused the engine to stall and the boat started drifting in the high seas. Two ships - a US navy ship stationed off Monrovia and a World Food Programme ship sailing from Abidjan - came to its rescue the following night, but could not tow it to Freetown. It was not until Tuesday that another boat, chartered by the Overbeck's owners from Bonthe, in the south-east of Sierra Leone, was able to start towing the stalled ship towards its original destination.
The MV Overbeck has been used in the past two years for the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees, first from Guinea and later from Liberia. In July this year, UNHCR used the ship to start the emergency evacuation of Sierra Leonean refugees stranded by fighting in war-torn Monrovia. Some 1,560 refugees have been evacuated in six voyages so far.
Since the end of 2001, some 66,000 Sierra Leoneans have returned home from Liberia with the help of UNHCR. In all, the agency has assisted the return and reintegration of 244,000 Sierra Leonean refugees, mainly from Guinea and Liberia, following the end of the brutal 12-year civil war in Sierra Leone.
UNHCR estimates there are still 13,500 Sierra Leonean refugees in and around Monrovia. Most of them have now left the UNHCR office compound where they had been camping for weeks, after fighting reached the Liberian capital. They have either repatriated or returned to the refugee camps around Monrovia which have now been secured with the deployment of the West African ECOMIL troops.
The refugee agency has resumed the distribution of relief material in these camps, where they also receive food.
UNHCR is now looking at alternative options for the remainder of Sierra Leonean refugees who would still like to go back home. One option would be to re-open the land route, which for months had been used for land repatriation before being cut off indefinitely by fighting last year.
Security missions and negotiations with various groups are ongoing to assess the feasibility of re-opening the route, as part of a bid to create humanitarian corridors in and out of Liberia. The route would be used for both repatriation and the transport of relief materials from Sierra Leone into Liberia.
In the meantime, emergency supplies have been arriving in Monrovia from Freetown on the MV Overbeck. Another delivery of relief aid is scheduled to arrive by plane from Copenhagen on Thursday night.