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Myanmar man who risked life by jumping off ship can claim asylum in New Zealand

The Myanmar national can lawfully remain in the country while going through immigration procedures, an official said.
The Rere Moana, right, arrives into Eastland Port, New Zealand, on Nov. 2 with the rescued man on board.
The Rere Moana, right, arrives into Eastland Port, New Zealand, on Nov. 2 with the rescued man on board.Eastland Port

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — A Myanmar national who jumped off a cargo ship into freezing waters off the coast of New Zealand will be allowed to stay in the country while his case is processed by immigration officials.

The man, 27, was rescued last week off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, near the city of Gisborne.

Identified by The New Zealand Herald as Min Naing, the man told the newspaper that he was “just waiting to die” after water seeped into the immersion suit he had been wearing for hours. NBC News could not verify his identity.

He said that his family was part of the Hindu minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where the military took power in a coup in February, and that they had participated in pro-democracy protests against the military junta. He said he feared for his life if he went back.

Min Naing could not be reached for comment by NBC News.

New Zealand police said they began a search and rescue operation on Nov. 2 after the man, a crew member, was reported missing from the ship. He had last been seen on board the night before. 

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Andrew Gaddum, chief operating officer for regional infrastructure at Eastland Group, which operates the Gisborne port, said port staff rescued the man about a mile and a half from shore.

“Our crew on the pilot vessel Rere Moana left around 3:30 p.m. and were delighted and hugely relieved to spot him floating in the water an hour later,” he said.

Officials later said the man was in police custody and had been hospitalized with hypothermia.

Fiona Whiteridge, general manager of refugee and migrant services at Immigration New Zealand, confirmed Thursday that the man was in the country “and can remain here lawfully while they go through immigration procedures to determine if they can stay in New Zealand.”

The agency did not say whether it had received any claim for asylum, citing confidentiality laws. The man’s lawyers in New Zealand declined to comment.

Since the military seized power on Feb. 1, ousting democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, hundreds of thousands of people across Myanmar have been displaced by violence, while mass protests have been met with deadly force

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar in July. AFP via Getty Images file

James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said this week that the military’s buildup in northwest Chin state resembled its activity in 2017 ahead of mass atrocities against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group long persecuted by the Myanmar government. 

Rights groups say the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating. Martin Griffiths, the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said this week that more than 3 million people were in need of aid.

“They are in an extremely dangerous situation,” said Shamsul Alam, a member of Myanmar’s Rohingya community who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. “They need to be rescued.” 

Tin Ma Ma Oo, spokesperson for the Democracy for Myanmar Working Group New Zealand, said Min Naing’s dramatic arrival may not be the last of its kind.

“We have got so many emails, messages,” she said. “People are desperately asking: We would like to come to New Zealand, how can we go there? Even if we have to do any type of job, what do we need to do? Just get us out.”

“We had one crewman who messaged me and said, ‘I am currently working on a ship, if I jump the boat as well, do you think I would be able to seek asylum?’”

The group is petitioning Parliament to allow the resettlement of 1,000 refugees from Myanmar whose families are in New Zealand. New Zealand has an annual quota of 1,500 refugees, a relatively low number among Western democracies that refugee advocates and New Zealand’s Burmese community say the country should consider increasing in response to the Myanmar crisis.

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer and refugee advocate in New Zealand, said the country had the capacity to do more.

New Zealand “should take more responsibility as a progressive country” to support victims of rights abuses, especially those fleeing persecution, said Boochani, who spent years in Australia’s widely criticized offshore detention system for asylum-seekers.

Alexander Gillespie, an international law professor at Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand, said he did not expect that to happen, noting that New Zealand did not follow the United States and Australia in increasing its quota to accommodate people fleeing the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

“If we couldn’t get an increased quota with Afghanistan, I think it’s unlikely we’ll get one with Myanmar,” he said.

CORRECTION (Nov. 12, 2021, 02:45 a.m. ET): A previous headline on this article misstated the Myanmar national’s immigration status. He can claim asylum in New Zealand, but it is unclear whether he is doing so at this time.