In the roiling waves of an angry Mediterranean, even a sturdy ship like the Responder has few defences.

Waves bash the bow, overwhelm the sides and douse the main deck with salt water. There’s little to do but ride it out.

Keeping watch on the bridge, Nick Romaniuk scans what is still visible of the horizon, looking for boats carrying asylum seekers.

'My job is really simple. We're here to preserve life.'

Occasionally, he glimpses the lights of the Libyan coast flickering in the distance. There, in hidden holding centres, thousands of people are waiting out the weather to make a risky seaborne attempt to get to Europe.

Romaniuk is doubtful any will appear before the bad weather passes. At least, he hopes they don’t. But a storm wouldn’t stop him from rescuing people if a boat were to show up — even if that meant jumping into the churning sea.

“My job is really simple,” he says. “We’re here to preserve life.”

Nick Romaniuk
Nick Romaniuk, who previously worked as a diver on an oil rig, took a 90 per cent pay cut to work on the Responder rescue ship. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Everything about the heart-stopping rescues Romaniuk conducts screams of life — it’s the desperation of young men and women in pursuit of a better existence combined with responders risking their own lives to prevent tragedy on the world’s busiest maritime asylum route.

These encounters are tense and difficult, a time when panic can kill and grown men cry openly. Although he’s only 31, Romaniuk has 16 years of experience at sea, and is a natural under such conditions.

Before this, he was making a lucrative living working on a search and rescue team on oilrigs in the Caribbean. Moved by news reports of the death of asylum seekers in the Mediterranean, Romaniuk volunteered as a rescue swimmer with Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a Malta-based NGO.

Romaniuk says he loves this work more than anything else he's done.

Two weeks later, MOAS offered him a full-time job. But it came with a 90 per cent pay cut.


The Topaz Responder
The Responder is jointly operated by the Red Cross and the Malta-based NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Romaniuk happily took it. He says he loves this work more than anything else he’s done.

It’s a feeling shared by many on the Responder working to prevent tragedy on the Mediterranean — including a man who, several years ago, made the perilous journey himself.

Refugees wait on deck
The UN reports that by the end of last year, more than 65.3 million people worldwide had been displaced by conflict or persecution. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, by the end of 2015, an unprecedented 65.3 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced by conflict or persecution.

The number of dead on the Mediterranean just hit an annual record — there have been more than 3,800 in 2016.

Several civilian vessels patrol the waters off the coast of Libya, which is the preferred if chaotic gateway to Europe. That includes the Responder, which is jointly operated by the Red Cross and MOAS, and ferries rescued asylum seekers to the Italian island of Sicily.

CBC’s the fifth estate was invited on board in late September, the first time a North American television crew has gained access to the ship.

The crew’s guiding principle is 'No one deserves to die at sea.'

The crew’s guiding principle is “No one deserves to die at sea.”

Yet they still do. Romaniuk has seen it happen, despite his crew’s best efforts.

He and a doctor once attended to five people who were discovered unconscious and in cardiac arrest at the bottom of a rubber boat, likely due to dehydration and exhaustion.

None of them made it.

Despite their best efforts, members of the crew of the Responder can't save every person they find. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

It’s around 4 a.m. on a calm Sunday in October when the boats begin to appear.

Among the first to be spotted is a monster dinghy, the biggest the crew has ever seen. The rubber vessel is about 15 metres long, crudely reinforced with huge planks of wood and metal screws and carrying three containers of fuel.

Huge dingy
One of the vessels the Responder recently came upon was this giant dinghy, which was carrying 170 people, including two pregnant women. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

It’s also holding the most people the Responder team has ever seen on such a boat — 170 people in all, including 39 women, two of them pregnant.

They’ve been on the sea for eight hours.

You can see the anxiety on these people’s faces. Some are trembling.

Working with SOS Mediteranee, a European NGO, the Responder rescue begins with the crew handing out life jackets to everyone on board.

The women are evacuated first, some on the verge of tears, and ferried separately on a smaller vessel to the Responder.

Welcome aboard
Nick Romaniuk and crew help desperate asylum seekers off their makeshift vessel. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The ship then sidles up to the dinghy, so Romaniuk and other rescuers can help the men up to safety without upsetting the raft’s balance.

“Sit down! Hey! Sit down!” Romaniuk yells repeatedly, knowing most if not all of the migrants understand English.

He has seen this go wrong before. He knows from experience that if there is panic or a rush, people will get crushed. If one of the huge petrol containers is knocked over, the passengers may be severely burned by the liquid or inhale the fumes. People have died this way.

Most of the asylum seekers are too stunned to speak. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

One by one, the male migrants are helped up the ladder onto the Responder. They are searched and their belongings are taken away to be checked.

Most people come with almost nothing — mainly just wallets, lighters and cigarettes.

One man is wearing a pendant that says, “All things are possible with God.”

Many of the migrants are too stunned to speak. Some hold their heads, crying.

All things are possible...
Asylum seekers aboard the Responder. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

A large group is from Nigeria. There are also Moroccans. And Eritreans.

Among the latter is Fakhr el Din Saik, who says he was arbitrarily imprisoned four times by the Eritrean regime. He escaped on foot, a nine-day odyssey that took him through the Sahara, where he dodged authorities, organ traffickers and dead bodies along the way.

For $400 US, he was promised passage on a big ship. But he was then forced to board the dinghy.

Fakhr el Din Saik
Fakhr el Din Saik escaped a dictatorial regime in Eritrea. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

“We were thinking that we'll all die,” he says. “All the people [were] crying.”

Nabi Ousmane is the only worker on the Responder with a first-hand understanding of what it’s like to opt for a last resort.

Eight years ago, at the age of 16, he arrived on a boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa. He had come from Ivory Coast, via Libya, in the hopes of escaping poverty and finding a better life.

Nabi Ousmane (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)
Nabi Ousmane
Nabi Ousmane was once an asylum seeker himself. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

He decided early on that he wanted to help others settle in, and started volunteering with the Red Cross. Ousmane’s gift for languages proved invaluable in communicating with new arrivals.

Part of his message was warning asylum seekers that staying in Europe isn’t easy. “The first one to three years is going to be difficult,” he tells them.

The Red Cross offered him a part-time job as a cultural mediator, helping asylum seekers navigate their first days and weeks in Italy.

'I know how many people have gone down here,' says Nabi Ousmane, pointing at the sea.

But this is his first mission at sea.

“Seeing these things [is] bringing back some memories — and brings out some pain in me, because I know how many people have gone down here,” Ousmane says, pointing at the sea.

Much has changed since he made the journey.

Libya is more dangerous now than when Ousmane left it – an uprising, Western airstrikes and the subsequent internal conflict have made it a lawless place.

Nabi Ousmane knows first hand the challenges that asylum seekers such as this woman face after they've made a perilous journey by sea. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

As a result, smugglers have flourished. They’ve taken to holding people who can’t pay for their passage in warehouses or caves until they work off their fee, which can range anywhere between $400 to $1,000 US — or more.

Several told us they were beaten, threatened or blindfolded. Women are often raped.

Migrants are given no choice about when or how they travel. Some are pushed, sometimes at gunpoint, onto boats that are far more crowded than before.

The over-filled boats might help explain the record deaths this year.

Once on board the Responder, asylum seekers are given emergency thermal blankets. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Even in good weather, these escape boats have little chance of making it very far, let alone to their final destination, says Romaniuk.

“They don’t have the fuel, the boats are structurally not strong enough to make the trip, they don’t have water or food, and no navigation aids.”

Survivors’ stories prove his point. Many report running out of fuel just a few hours into the trip.

Amer, who escaped Syria, took the incredible risk of a seaborne journey in the hopes of securing a better future for his family. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Amer, a Syrian student from Idlib saved by the Responder, says the wooden boat he was on started leaking and taking on water with 27 on board. Mercifully, they managed to fix the leak.

A father of two, he says he took this incredible risk for his family’s sake.

"My goal is to arrive somewhere safe," says Amer, who only wanted to use his first name. "After that, my only hope is to be reunited with my children. I don’t want anything else.”

Life jackets
Saving people on the Mediterranean over the last six months has been 'a blur of orange,' says Nick Romaniuk. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Six months on, Romaniuk has helped thousands to safety — “a blur of orange,” he calls it.

These extraordinary encounters at sea have become a near daily occurrence and the subject of rising concern.

Some critics of existing European refugee policy believe the rescue ships are a pull factor, encouraging people to come.

'I don’t think anyone thinks that this is the solution. It can’t be.'

Romaniuk disputes that. He believes more asylum seekers would be dissuaded from taking the risk if they were told their refugee claims would most likely be rejected.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that this is the solution. It can’t be,” says Romaniuk. “But until something concrete is put into place that can stop people dying on the scale that they’re dying at the moment, we’ll just keep on doing it. We have to.”

Nick Romaniuk
Nick Romaniuk has been working on the Responder for six months. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

After a long rescue, Romaniuk has one more task.

He gets into the empty dinghy that the Responder crew has evacuated, unshackles the tiny outboard and drops it into the water.

Then, in a stab at some sort of justice, he pulls out a knife and tears into the rubber dinghy — so it can never be used again.

Video: Nick Romaniuk destroys a dinghy



Editing: Andre Mayer | Design and Development: Dwight Friesen, News Interactives