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Liberia: Rescue ship arrives at Monrovia

Briefing notes

Liberia: Rescue ship arrives at Monrovia

4 July 2003

A UNHCR rescue ship arrived in the war-torn Liberian capital of Monrovia this morning to begin the emergency evacuation of thousands of desperate Sierra Leonean refugees. UNHCR staff in Monrovia said the MV Overbeck was sitting offshore as of 8:30 a.m. local time (0930 GMT) this morning, awaiting clearance and word on security conditions before proceeding into the port.

For the first voyage, our Monrovia staff have identified more than 360 refugees, including the most vulnerable among some 1,000 who have been seeking shelter in and around the UNHCR compound in the city. Given the desperation among many Liberians and others to leave Monrovia, we've also asked local authorities to provide security during the loading process.

The MV Overbeck left Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Wednesday evening for the 30-hour trip to Monrovia. Security and weather allowing, it is scheduled to begin the return voyage to Freetown today. Assuming the current ceasefire holds in Monrovia, the ship should be able to make a voyage about every four days.

Thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who fled into Monrovia during a recent rebel attack on the city and its environs are seeking help in this emergency evacuation, which UNHCR began organising following 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 them had been living in camps around Monrovia prior to the latest rebel offensive. UNHCR's representative for Liberia, Moses Okello, says upwards of 5,000 have so far indicated an interest in being evacuated.

We still have more than 30 national staff in Monrovia. They are compiling passenger manifests for the evacuation. While many of the first to sign up were those who had fled to the UNHCR and other international compounds in the capital, we've also had word from at least one outlying camp - Samukai, 13 km from the city - that more than 1,000 refugees there want to be evacuated.

Like the local population, the refugees are living in abysmal conditions, and our staff are finding it extremely difficult to help them. UNHCR's warehouses have been looted, our vehicles have been stolen and vandalised, fuel is in short supply, communications are difficult, and security remains a real problem. UNHCR's warehouses had contained tons of blankets, mattresses, kitchenware, food, medical supplies, generators and other items for up to 90,000 people. All of it has been looted. We can only hope it has reached those who most need it.

The 43.5-metre (143-ft.) Overbeck, based in Conakry, Guinea, was hurriedly outfitted in Freetown on Tuesday and Wednesday with medical supplies, food, extra water tanks and additional life-saving equipment. This is the storm season in West Africa, and 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.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Liberia continues to affect the wider West Africa region. An increasing number of arrivals from Liberia are being reported in other West African countries. UNHCR appeals to governments in the region to receive these new arrivals and to recognise that after so many years of war, just about everyone in Liberia is suffering.

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 and transferred with UNHCR help to a temporary reception site.

In south-western Côte d'Ivoire, refugees continue to arrive in limited numbers from Liberia's southern Maryland County - more than 30,000 Liberians, Ivorians and displaced migrants in the past month alone. This has placed a major burden on local Ivorian communities that don't have the infrastructure to cope. In the town of Tabou, for example, a transit centre built to house 700 refugees now contains more than 3,000, posing a major health risk. UNHCR and its partners are planning to expand the camp as soon as possible, but a key bridge on the road leading to this region has been damaged and needs to be repaired before we can haul in the necessary heavy materials. At the request of the Ivorian government, three potential camp sites have been identified in the Tabou region for up to 10,000 people. For the time being, however, the preferred solution remains integration of refugees into local communities.

In all, UNHCR estimates that Côte d'Ivoire is still hosting more than 50,000 refugees, but without access to the western part of the country the exact figure remains unknown. We were pleased to receive confirmation yesterday from the U.S. Mission in Geneva of a new U.S. contribution of $8.25 million for our recent supplementary appeal for the Côte d'Ivoire Emergency. That appeal, for $29 million, was issued in March but until this latest contribution we had received less than $6 million. With the new U.S. funds, we've now received over $14 million, or nearly 50 percent of requirements for this urgent operation.