Stalled returnee ship sets course for Sierra Leone again
MONROVIA, Liberia, August 26 (UNHCR) - Rescue efforts are underway for a ship carrying more than 150 Sierra Leonean refugees returning home from Monrovia to Freetown that went adrift on Sunday.
The UNHCR-chartered MV Overbeck had left the Liberian capital of Monrovia on Sunday morning with 186 people on board, including 154 Sierra Leonean refugees heading home to Freetown, 29 crew members, one UNHCR staff member and three staff from the Liberian non-governmental organisation, MERCI. Technical problems in the engine developed shortly after mid-day, as the ship was sailing on high seas, causing it to stall and drift in the strong current.
Two other ships - the US navy's USS Carter Hall and the World Food Programme's Martin rushed to the site on Sunday afternoon. After they failed to repair the MV Overbeck's engine, the WFP vessel started towing the stalled ship back towards Monrovia. In the meantime, UNHCR had chartered a third vessel, Sea Spring, from Sierra Leone. The Sea Spring is expected to start towing the MV Overbeck to its original destination, Freetown, where it is scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.
UNHCR is in constant contact with the ship. Some refugees have been getting sea sick after travelling on rough seas for nearly three days. Despite the uncomfortable situation, food and water on board were reported to be still sufficient.
The MV Overbeck has been used by UNHCR to repatriate Sierra Leonean refugees over the past two years. Its task has become more urgent as increasing numbers of refugees register for voluntary return amid the recent fighting in Monrovia.
In addition to sea repatriation, the UN refugee agency has been considering other modes of return from Monrovia - via airlifts or by land convoys. But the overland option will only be viable when the rainy season ends around mid-October.
The last of the 500 refugees who were camping at the UNHCR office in Monrovia have now left the compound. Some of them boarded the MV Overbeck for home while others returned to the camps around Monrovia, which have now been secured by the West African ECOMIL troops. Distribution of aid has resumed in the camps.
Meanwhile, UNHCR has been working with other aid agencies to co-ordinate the distribution of relief items to refugees and internally displaced persons in various areas of the country. Inter-agency assessment missions to the rebel-held areas of Buchanan, Totota and Salala, have found more than 70,000 displaced people in dire need of food, shelter and sanitation. In addition to its own camps for refugees, UNHCR has also visited eight camps for internally displaced people around Monrovia to assess their immediate needs.
A planeload of relief material for 7,000 people, from UNHCR's regional stocks in Accra, (Ghana), landed in Monrovia on Saturday. Two more aircraft are expected from Copenhagen this week. By the end of the week, there should be enough supplies for 40,000 desperate people - refugees, Liberian returnees from Côte d'Ivoire, and internally displaced Liberians. They will receive blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, hygiene kits and soap.