Greenpeace volunteers unfurl a banner on a ship carrying VW imports. Picture: Kristian Buus/Greenpeace handout via Reuters.

Sheerness, England - Greenpeace protesters stormed a ship at sea carrying Volkswagen diesel cars on Thursday – stopping it from docking in the UK.

Around 20 demonstrators in kayaks and inflatables climbed the unloading door of the vessel as it came into port.

Activists held images of Sephie Ruan, aged two-and-a-half, who is suffering from a respiratory illness.

She is the daughter of Greenpeace IT worker, Bo Ruan, 30 and his wife Amii, 30 who live at the junction of two busy roads in Walthamstow, East London. Her parents fear her lungs will never recover and claim a whole generation of children may be in a similar position.

Last night two protesters remained hanging off the ship – pledging to stay until the motor giant "takes its toxic cars back to Germany".

VW admitted cheating emissions tests in 2015. It was found to have fitted software designed to mislead emissions tests applicable to 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide, including almost 1.2 million in the UK.

Greenpeace said its volunteers had boarded the ship in the Thames Estuary to stop it unloading at Sheerness, Kent, on Thursday morning. The ship, the Elbe Highway anchored further along the coast at Margate.

On Thursday night the two activists still on board had unfurled a banner with the slogan Ditch Diesel, above an image of Sephie Ruan.

Other protesters had earlier broken into a vehicle park full of imported cars at Sheerness to stick labels on engines and attempt to immobilise them by taking the keys.

Two protesters in the car park were Meena Rajput from London and Jo Paterson, from Scotland, who had hundreds of car keys. They had scaled a gantry to evade security guards.

They will remain there until the ship returns to Germany, said Greenpeace. The two remaining on the ship - Victoria Henry and Phil Ball - were hanging off ropes on the stern door. Mr Ball was once arrested for putting a gasmask on a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament.

Other campaigners were collected from the Sheerness docks car park in a hired coach - which onlookers said appeared to be a diesel.

VW said that the majority of the roughly 1200 cars on the ship were petrol models and that its diesel vehicles meet the latest stringent European regulations. Britain aims to ban the sale of diesel vehicles from 2040 - as part of efforts to improve air quality, but activists said the measures needed to be implemented now.

Kent Police confirmed that one person had been arrested for aggravated trespass.

Sheerness port is run by Peel Ports. A Peel Ports spokesman said: "We are working with the police, Greenpeace and Volkswagen to resolve the situation."