UNHCR prepares to return to Monrovia
MONROVIA, Liberia, August 5 (UNHCR) - As the first international peacekeeping troops arrive in Liberia, UNHCR and other aid agencies have been getting ready to resume assistance to hundreds of thousands of people displaced by recent fighting in the strife-torn country.
On Tuesday, the UN refugee agency announced it was preparing to return to Liberia with international staff and humanitarian aid. It was also ready to resume the repatriation of Sierra Leonean refugees from the capital, Monrovia.
Jo Hegenauer, UNHCR's emergency co-ordinator in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, said, "For the past weeks we have been working on a return plan for Liberia. As soon as the fighting calms down in and around Monrovia, we will send in emergency teams and supplies by boat and plane."
The UNHCR-chartered ship, MV Overbeck, is currently docked in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where it is being loaded with trucks, light vehicles, fuel, blankets and other relief items. The agency's emergency staff will sail to Monrovia with this aid convoy as soon as the UN security team gives its clearance.
The ship will then return to Freetown with 300 Sierra Leonean refugees who had registered for emergency evacuation from Monrovia before the operation was interrupted by fighting on July 20.
Another ship chartered by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) is scheduled to leave Abidjan with supplies and staff from WFP, the UN Children's Fund, Oxfam and UNHCR on Tuesday night. It will be docked off the port in Monrovia pending security clearance.
A separate shipment of relief aid for Liberia is expected to leave this week from UNHCR's stockpiles in Turkey and Jordan. In all, 50,000 blankets, 14,000 jerry cans, 14,000 kitchen sets, 14,000 lanterns and 14 metric tons of soap will be sent to Freetown, and Accra in Ghana to boost supplies in Liberia.
While UNHCR welcomed Monday's arrival of the first contingent of Nigerian peacekeepers in Liberia, the agency has cautioned that results may not be seen immediately. "The deployment of the first peacekeepers is of course an encouraging development, but it will only be complete when the fighting stops and the humanitarian actors are able to resume their activities to bring the much-awaited relief aid to the people of Liberia," said UNHCR Representative for Liberia, Moses Okello, from Abidjan.
The humanitarian situation in Monrovia, for example, is still deteriorating. Food and clean water are increasingly scarce, with non-governmental organisation (NGO) Merlin distributing whatever little food is still available. Medical resources are overstretched, and UNHCR has lent its two ambulances to another NGO, Merci, to transport the injured to the hospital.
"In the present security situation, there is only so much our hard-working national staff on the ground can do," said UNHCR's Hegenauer. "Still, under these difficult conditions, what they managed to achieve - repatriation of refugees, distribution of food in contested areas - is highly commendable."
In addition, more than 900 people have sought shelter at the refugee agency's compound in Monrovia, venturing out only during lulls in the fighting.
Besides those displaced in the capital, many others have fled into Liberia's neighbouring countries. Liberians heading for Côte d'Ivoire have been crossing the Cavaly river in small boats that capsize easily. Some of them have reportedly drowned when crossing at places with strong currents.
UNHCR estimates that some 40,000 Liberian refugees have arrived in south-western Côte d'Ivoire since May.
"It is very worrying that refugees continue to arrive on a daily basis," said Anne Dolan, who heads UNHCR's field office in Tabou, Côte d'Ivoire. "The support for refugees is limited and the new arrivals put an enormous strain on the already affected Ivorian infrastructure."
She added, "We can only hope that the situation will calm down as soon as possible and that refugees will be able to return soon, in order to rebuild their lives after so many years in exile."