UNHCR planning sea evacuation for Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia
ABIDJAN, Côte d'Ivoire, June 30 (UNHCR) - UNHCR on Monday stepped up preparations to evacuate Sierra Leonean and other refugees trapped in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, as a ceasefire in the battle-weary city entered its fourth day.
Final plans were being made in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, to send a ship to Monrovia to evacuate the refugees, many of whom fled to the UNHCR compound in the Liberian capital in the wake of a rebel onslaught. More than 1,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and displaced Liberians are encamped in UN and embassy premises throughout the coastal town. 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, a ship that can carry up to 250 passengers could set sail from Sierra Leone as early as Tuesday morning for the 36-hour journey to Monrovia. The vessel, which has been used before by the UN refugee agency to transport Sierra Leoneans home, will be made available for this operation for an initial period of two weeks.
"The ship is now on stand-by in Sierra Leone," said Moses Okello, UNHCR's representative in Liberia, speaking from the Ivorian capital, Abidjan. "We are trying to establish that it will be able to dock with no problem in Monrovia. We hope to evacuate as many Sierra Leonean refugees as we can."
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, UN High Commissioner for Refugees 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.
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. This week, the World Food Programme plans to make a general distribution of food to displaced Liberians and refugees encamped in various premises throughout 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.
"While our office in Monrovia has remained intact, we have lost all our light vehicles," said Okello, adding that vehicle parts had been stolen from larger trucks. One of the first priorities of the UN refugee agency would be to rebuild its stocks upon the return of expatriate staff to the Liberian capital.