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Liberia: Evacuation plans for Sierra Leoneans

Briefing notes

Liberia: Evacuation plans for Sierra Leoneans

1 July 2003

Assuming the current ceasefire holds, UNHCR is making preparations to carry out an evacuation by sea of Sierra Leonean refugees trapped in the war-torn Liberian capital of Monrovia. Final plans are being made in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, to send a ship to Monrovia to evacuate the refugees, many of whom have fled to the UNHCR compound in the Liberian capital in the wake of the recent rebel onslaught on the capital. More than 1,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians are encamped in UN and embassy premises throughout the city. The refugees are among an estimated 15,000 Sierra Leoneans who were previously assisted by UNHCR in refugee camps around Monrovia.

If the ceasefire continues to hold, the 250-passenger MV Overbeck could set sail from Sierra Leone as early as this evening for the 36-hour journey to Monrovia. The Overbeck is currently sailing from Conakry, Guinea, and was expected to arrive in Freetown today. There, it will be outfitted with supplies and then could set sail tonight for Monrovia. We have used the Overbeck before to transport Sierra Leoneans home from Guinea, Gambia and Liberia.

Our representative for Liberia, Moses Okello, said last night that UNHCR just needed to establish that the ship could dock safely in Monrovia. If so, he said, we hope to evacuate as many Sierra Leonean refugees as we can. Mr. Okello and other UNHCR international staff were evacuated from Monrovia by French troops on June 9. A repatriation operation to Sierra Leone had been ongoing since last year. In January this year, UNHCR started actively promoting returns, given the improved situation in Sierra Leone and the deteriorating situation in Liberia. However, this year, only 2,000 Sierra Leonean refugees have accepted the return option presented by UNHCR.

Amid the worsening humanitarian situation in Liberia, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers last Friday renewed his call for an immediate end to hostilities and a rapid deployment of an intervention force to fill the current security vacuum in the war-torn country. Such a force would also pave the way for the resumption of aid operations which have been suspended over much of the country, the High Commissioner said.

Relief assistance to displaced refugees and Liberians has been sporadic. Last week, UNHCR distributed food to hundreds of people who had sought refuge in the agency's compound in Monrovia. Delivery of aid to the needy populations has, however, been severely hampered by the massive looting and insecurity that have swept Monrovia since the rebel offensive began in the city three weeks ago. UNHCR's warehouses in Monrovia are empty after looters carted away supplies of blankets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting provided to refugees to cover their shelters, kitchen sets and other material.