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UN refugee rescue ship heads for Monrovia

Liberia: UN refugee rescue ship heads for Monrovia to begin emergency evacuation

3 July – Battling heavy winds and high seas, the United Nations rescue ship Overbeck is heading for Monrovia today to begin an emergency evacuation of thousands of desperate Sierra Leonean refugees living in makeshift camps scattered along the outskirts of the war-ravaged Liberian capital.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the MV Overbeck left Freetown, Sierra Leone, late yesterday on a 30-hour voyage to Monrovia along the storm-lashed West African coast. It is expected to arrive in the besieged Liberian capital early tomorrow. Assuming the fragile ceasefire holds, the ship will be able to ferry 300 passengers each voyage and should be able to make the trip to Freetown every three days.

While UNHCR says that more than 5,000 of an estimated 15,000 Sierra Leonean refugees living in Liberia had shown an interest in being evacuated, the tenuous security situation in Monrovia and the lack of logistical capacity will make the rescue operation one of the most challenging the agency has faced in recent times.

Amid looting and lawlessness, eight UNHCR vehicles have been stolen, vandals have put nine trucks out of action, fuel is scarce, and the agency’s pared down staff in Monrovia, already coping with tremendous humanitarian needs, have no cash to get refugees to the port because the banks are closed.

But UNHCR representative Moses Okello said today that other organisations, including European Union aid officials and Germany's GTZ, were offering to help with transport and repairs. “This is an emergency evacuation," he said in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, where he and other UN international staff had been evacuated on June 9. “Given the dire situation in Monrovia, the usual procedures for repatriation cannot be followed.”

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, an increasing number of spontaneous arrivals from Liberia are being reported in other West African countries. 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.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that displaced populations in Monrovia are choosing to remain in impromptu settlements around the city as the security situation remains tense despite a truce. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain highly susceptible to outbreaks of diseases due to shortages of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities.

In other news, the Force Commander Lieutenant General Daniel Ishmael Opande for the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), is in Accra, Ghana, to attend a meeting of the Defense and Security Commission of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is discussing the composition and mandate of a force for Liberia as part of the ongoing peace talks in that city.

© Scoop Media

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