By Darrin Zammit Lupi
ABOARD THE TOPAZ RESPONDER (Reuters) - The first reports came in at dawn. A growing number of flimsy rubber dinghies, packed with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, in difficulty in the Mediterranean Sea.
By the time the ship Topaz Responder arrived on the scene, some 20 nautical miles (37 kms) off the Libyan coast, on June 23, its crew counted 21 inflatable boats.
By the end of the day, the vessel and other ships had plucked about 5,000 people from more than 40 boats, according to the Italian coastguard. One person died before they arrived.
"I was on the boat for five hours at sea ... I didn't feel good because it wasn't safe," said Afigu Barrie, 20, a student from Sierra Leone rescued by the crew of the Topaz Responder.
"Now I'm comfortable. I appreciate this so much. I thank God."
Europe's worst immigration crisis since World War Two is showing little sign of a slowdown in the flow of people heading across the sea from North Africa to Italy.
According to the International Organisation for Migration, 225,095 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year. There have been 2,889 deaths in the Mediterranean compared with 1,838 in the first six months of 2015.
Last week, thousands of people were pulled from international waters in just several days, according to the Italian coastguard, as people smugglers increased operations in good weather. Many set off from Libya.
Reuters photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi on board the Topaz Responder, operated by the privately funded Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), witnessed one major rescue operation, also involving other humanitarian and navy ships and the Italian coastguard.
MOAS was founded in 2014 by entrepreneurs Christopher Catrambone and his wife Regina in response to the tragic death of several hundred migrants who drowned when their boat sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013.
It says it has since rescued more than 15,000 people.
"The pressure is there, it hasn't abated in any way. You still have a very strong and steady flow of Africans coming on the central Mediterranean route," Ian Ruggier, MOAS head of operations, said.
"I think nothing has happened since last year to change that ... There is still a significant number of people wanting to leave Libyan shores."
For pictures, click on http://reut.rs/29bgb8n
PRAYERS AND SLEEP
The Topaz Responder had been at sea for six days conducting patrols before it was called to help late last week by the Rome Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre.
Upon arrival, it launched one of its two Fast Rescue Daughter Craft (FRDC), named after Syrian brothers Aylan and Galib Kurdi whose deaths while trying to reach Greece from Turkey last year made global headlines.
The crew on the smaller vessel, including two rescue swimmers and a medic, approached the nearest overcrowded dinghy and began throwing life jackets to those on board.
The Topaz Responder drew closer and the FRDC nudged the dinghy against the ship, allowing the migrants to scramble aboard. Many dropped to their knees in prayer while waiting to be frisked by security personnel before the ship headed on to help another dinghy.
"I feel so good," said Osman Kalokoh from Sierra Leone. "So relieved."
In total, 382 migrants, most from West Africa, were rescued that day by the Topaz Responder, including babies.
People hugged one another and others cried loudly. Then they slept, exhausted by a journey that had begun months before in the hope of finding a new life in Europe. Later they were transferred to an Italian coastguard ship bound for Sicily.
"Being in Europe now, I want to continue my education. I want to learn something better," Barrie said. "I want to be better tomorrow."
(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Janet Lawrence)