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Liberia: Adrift rescue ship may be towed to port

Briefing notes

Liberia: Adrift rescue ship may be towed to port

26 August 2003

The Freetown-bound MV Overbeck, a UNHCR-chartered boat with 186 people on board, including 154 Sierra Leonean refugees, has been adrift on high seas since its engine broke down on Sunday. The US Navy's USS Quarterhall and a WFP [World Food Programme] ship have rushed to the site and are currently trying to remedy the situation. An early attempt to repair the engine failed and the option of towing the vessel to a port is now being considered.

The Sierra Leoneans boarded the ship on 22 August and have now spent more than 80 hours at sea. UNHCR has been in constant contact with the ship. The refugees are reported to be well, although they are tired of being on a ship in high seas. Food and water are in sufficient supply. UNHCR has also ensured that possible medical needs of the passengers will be attended to by the USS Quarterhall medical staff.

The MV Overbeck has been used by UNHCR over the past year to repatriate Sierra Leonean refugees. UNHCR is presently assessing return options by air or by land. The latter can only start after the rainy season in mid-October

Meanwhile, as a result of the fragile peace and a slight increase in the overall security in Liberia, refugees have started to return to some of the camps just outside Monrovia. Over the weekend, UNHCR transferred 350 refugees who had sought refuge in the UNHCR compound, back to their camps. UNHCR also continues to liaise with ECOMIL, in an attempt to make the camp areas safer. UNHCR's protection and emergency staff are visiting the camps daily in a bid to give some sense of security to the refugees and the local population.

At the same time, UNHCR and the NGO community are working hard on setting up a distribution mechanism for domestic items, which in the long run could benefit uprooted populations all over Liberia. By the end of this week, UNHCR and other agencies will have the capacity to assist over 40,000 people. They include refugees, Liberian returnees from Côte d'Ivoire and internally displaced persons. They will receive material assistance such as blankets, mattresses, hygiene kits, soap and kitchen sets. We are trying to identify and assist the most vulnerable, although in Liberia the majority of the population has suffered so much that many people can be described as extremely vulnerable.

In addition to refugees, UNHCR has been trying to reach out to Liberian returnees and internally displaced people. Last Friday, the agency joined other aid organisations on an assessment mission to rebel-controlled Buchanan, where there are over 40,000 displaced Liberians. There are reports of another few thousand displaced people in Harbel and Cotton Tree between Buchanan and Monrovia.

A separate mission to Totota and Salala, north-east of Monrovia, found more than 30,000 displaced Liberians and some 500 returnees from Côte d'Ivoire in desperate need of food, shelter and sanitation facilities. UNHCR has also visited eight camps for displaced people around Monrovia to assess their immediate needs.