UNHCR rescue ship approaches Liberia to begin refugee evacuation operation
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, July 3 (UNHCR) - A UNHCR rescue ship was approaching war-ravaged Liberia on Thursday to begin the emergency evacuation of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who have fled to the besieged city of Monrovia.
The MV Overbeck left Freetown, Sierra Leone, at 8:40 p.m. Wednesday on a 30-hour voyage to Monrovia along the storm-lashed West African coast. It was expected to arrive in the besieged Liberian capital early Friday.
Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who fled to Monrovia during a recent rebel attack on the city are seeking emergency evacuation. UNHCR began organising the sea rescue operation following the declaration of a ceasefire on June 27 between the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the government.
In all, there are some 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia, most of whom had been living in camps around Monrovia prior to the latest rebel offensive. UNHCR's representative for Liberia, Moses Okello, said upwards of 5,000 have so far indicated an interest in being evacuated.
By Thursday morning, UNHCR staff in Monrovia had compiled passenger manifests for some 600 people, many of whom had fled to the refugee agency's compound in the capital during the recent fighting and have been living in abysmal conditions. The 43.5-metre (143 ft.) Overbeck will be able to carry at least 300 passengers per voyage and - assuming the ceasefire holds - should be able to make a trip every three days. UNHCR staff were identifying some of the most vulnerable refugees for the first evacuation voyage on Friday.
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.
The Guinean-registered MV Overbeck, based in Conakry, Guinea, docked in Freetown late Tuesday evening and work was immediately started to outfit it with medical supplies, food, extra water tanks and additional life-saving equipment. The Overbeck's crew reported "appalling" weather conditions during the voyage from Conakry to Freetown, with heavy rains and high seas. UNHCR has used the Overbeck, a Danish-built passenger ferry, for the past five years 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 make the rescue operation one of the most challenging UNHCR has faced in recent times. Amid continued looting and lawlessness, the more than 30 UNHCR national staff remaining in Monrovia are struggling to cope with the enormous humanitarian needs. Eight UNHCR light vehicles have been stolen and vandals took parts from nine other UNHCR trucks, leaving them inoperable. With banks closed, UNHCR staff had no cash to hire transport to get refugees to the port. Fuel is also scarce. But UNHCR representative Okello said Thursday that other organisations, including European Union aid officials and Germany's GTZ, had offered to help transport refugees to the port and to repair the remaining UNHCR vehicles.
"This is an emergency evacuation," Okello said in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, where he and other UN international staff had been evacuated on June 9. "Given the dire situation in Monrovia, the usual procedures for repatriation cannot be followed."
Okello said Friday's voyage would be the first of many that UNHCR plans for refugees who want to return home. Despite plans for regular sailings as long as the current ceasefire holds, UNHCR staff fear that Friday's arrival of the first ship may bring a mad rush to the port area by refugees as well as others desperate to leave the war-ravaged capital.
An increasing number of spontaneous arrivals from Liberia are being reported in other West African countries. In Ghana, UNHCR staff report that several vessels, ranging from small fishing boats to larger ships, began arriving in June and are now showing up with increasing frequency. People arriving aboard larger vessels from Liberia in Ghana's Takoradi port, some 400 km west of Accra, are being registered by authorities. UNHCR is helping to transfer arriving refugees to a temporary reception site at Essipon.
However, those coming on small fishing boats usually land undetected. UNHCR Ghana has begun an exercise to register all refugees in the country, which should give the agency more exact information about the number of recent arrivals.