Thousands of refugees seek evacuation from Liberia aboard UNHCR rescue vessel
MONROVIA, Liberia, July 2 (UNHCR) - Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees are seeking emergency evacuation from Liberia aboard a rescue ship being sent to the country's war-torn capital, Monrovia, by the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Preparations for the emergency evacuation got underway in Monrovia on Wednesday, when UNHCR staff in the Liberian capital began compiling passenger manifests for the first voyage, which could take place as early as Friday.
More than 500 frightened Sierra Leonean refugees who fled outlying camps for the relative safety of the UNHCR compound in Monrovia are already signed up for the emergency sea evacuation, and thousands more scattered around the devastated city are requesting help to leave. UNHCR organized the refugee evacuation following a ceasefire announced by the rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), on 27 June. Aside from those in the UNHCR compound, thousands of other Sierra Leonean refugees seeking temporary safety with embassies and other international organisations in Monrovia are also requesting UNHCR assistance to return.
An unknown number of refugees in the Samukai camp, some 13 km from Monrovia, have also sent word to UNHCR staff in Monrovia that they would like to return to Sierra Leone. In all, there are some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia.
In neighbouring Sierra Leone, meanwhile, UNHCR staff were rushing to finish work on equipping the 300-passenger MV Overbeck for its rescue voyage amid heavy rains that are lashing much of the west coast of Africa. Assuming the work is completed, the Overbeck was scheduled to set sail on Wednesday evening for the 30-hour voyage from the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown to Monrovia.
The Overbeck, which is based in Conakry, Guinea, docked in Freetown late Tuesday evening and work was immediately started to outfit it with medical supplies, food, supplementary water tanks and additional life-saving equipment.
Since 1998, the UN refugee agency has used the MV Overbeck, a Danish-built passenger ferry, to transport thousands of Sierra Leoneans home from Guinea, Gambia and Liberia, as well as Liberians from Côte d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Gambia.
The tenuous security situation in Monrovia and the lack of logistical capacity following widespread looting in the capital make the upcoming operation one of the most challenging UNHCR rescue operations of recent times. UNHCR national staff in Monrovia were struggling to cope with the huge humanitarian demands following the theft of eight UNHCR light vehicles. Nine other UNHCR trucks were vandalised.
With banks closed, more than 30 UNHCR national staff who remain in the city have no cash to hire transport to get refugees to the port. Fuel is also scarce. Refugees will likely have to make their own way to the port to board the Overbeck, tentatively due in Monrovia on Friday.
"This is an emergency evacuation," declared Moses Okello, UNHCR's Liberia representative. "Given the dire situation in Monrovia, the usual procedures for repatriation cannot be followed."
Under normal circumstances, refugees register for repatriation ahead of their departure indicating the area of return in their country of origin. Before departure, refugees sign mandatory Voluntary Repatriation Forms (VRF) to demonstrate that he or she is returning home willingly. In addition, return assistance, including actual transport, cash grants in some cases and reintegration aid, is often provided by the refugee agency directly or through partners. Little can be provided in this emergency.
"This is the first of many voyages that UNHCR will make available for refugees who want to return home," said Okello, speaking from the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, where UN international staff were evacuated on June 9. "There should be a boat every three days or so."
Despite plans for regular sailings as long as the current ceasefire holds, UNHCR staff fear the first voyage may bring a mad rush to the port area by refugees as well as others desperate to leave the war-ravaged capital.