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Packed Refugee Ship Turned Away For Third Time, Ship Loaded With Thousands Of Sick And Hungry Liberians Forced Back To Sea

A rusty freighter teeming with thousands of sick and hungry Liberian refugees was shunned for a third time by West African neighbors and forced back out to sea Sunday night.

Ghanaian authorities only allowed the Nigerian freighter Bulk Challenge to dock for several hours to refuel. The rusty ship overloaded with 3,000 to 4,000 refugees fleeing violence in their homeland then embarked on a three-day journey to Lagos, Nigeria.

Authorities did not even allow any of the refugees suffering from dehydration, dysentery and pneumonia to get off the ship for medical care.

“It was a real surprise and we’re quite upset to hear they they were forced again to set sail,” said Annelies Thiele of the international relief agency Doctors Without Borders. “We are overwhelmed by this sudden decision of the government.”

The ship tried to dock Sunday morning at Takoradi, a port in western Ghana, but Ghanaian authorities blocked it with large floating cranes. A Ghanaian naval source said there were gunshots coming from the Bulk Challenge and it would not allow it to come to shore. Authorities changed their minds and the ship docked at Takoradi Sunday evening.

Earlier in the day, Deputy Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibn Chambas had reaffirmed Ghana’s stand that the refugees would not be allowed to disembark, but would be given medical aid.

“Ghana will not prevent doctors or anybody from going on board to give humanitarian assistance, but our position on the Liberian refugees remains unchanged,” he said.

But no doctors were allowed to board the ship, according to Doctors Without Border.

A woman on board died Sunday from hemorrhaging. It was the first reported death among the ship that had been seeking a West African port of refugee for one week.

“At least they took the dead body off the boat,” said Thiele.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 refugees fleeing Monrovia on the merchant vessel Victory Reefer were allowed to come within one mile to the port in Freetown, Sierra Leone. They were largely Leonians who had fled into neighboring Liberia during their own five-year civil war.

The refugees will be allowed to leave the boat after authorities determine if any of the passengers were armed Liberian fighters, naval sources said.

Passengers on the Bulk Challenge were having a much tougher time finding a safe haven.

Like the Ivory Coast authorities who turned away the freighter that left the embattled Liberian capital a week ago, Ghana is fed up with harboring tens of thousands of Liberians who have fled their 6-1/2-year civil war.

Panicked Liberians fleeing a month of brutal fighting in Monrovia packed the Ghana-bound freighter on May 4. The ship limped into San Pedro in Ivory Coast on Monday, having taken on 6 feet of water.

But Ivorian officials ordered more than 1,000 women and children back on board and sent it back out to sea Thursday. Ivory Coast has been flooded with 350,000 Liberians who have fled across the border since the war began six years ago.