CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand – A Myanmar citizen who jumped from a cargo ship into freezing water off the coast of New Zealand is allowed to stay in the country while his case is processed by immigration officials.
The 27-year-old man was rescued off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island near the city of Gisborne last week.
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 wetsuit he’d been wearing for hours. NBC News was unable to confirm his identity.
He said his family was part of the Hindu minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where the military took power through a coup in February, and that they had participated in pro-democratic protests against the military junta. He said he feared for his life if he returned.
Min Naing was unavailable for NBC News for comment.
New Zealand police said they launched a search and rescue operation on November 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 port of Gisborne, said port staff rescued the man about a mile and a half offshore.
“Our crew on the pilot ship Rere Moana left at around 3:30 pm and was delighted and very relieved to see him floating in the water an hour later,” he said.
Officials later said the man was hospitalized in police custody and with hypothermia.
Fiona Whiteridge, general manager of refugee and migrant services at Immigration New Zealand, confirmed Thursday that the man is in the country “and can lawfully stay here while they go through the immigration process to see if they can stay in New Zealand”.
The agency did not announce whether she had received an asylum application, citing the confidentiality law. The man’s lawyers in New Zealand declined to comment.
Hundreds of thousands of people across Myanmar have been displaced by force since the military seizure of power on February 1, ousting democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while mass protests have been met with deadly violence.
James Kariuki, the UK’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said this week that building the military in northwest Chin state was similar to what it was doing in 2017 prior to the mass atrocities against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group long owned by the Myanmar government is pursued.
Human rights groups say the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly. Martin Griffiths, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said this week that more than 3 million people were in need of help.
“You are in an extremely dangerous situation,” said Shamsul Alam, a Rohingya member of Myanmar who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. “You must be saved.”
Tin Ma Ma Oo, spokeswoman for the Democracy Working Group for Myanmar in New Zealand, said Min Naing’s dramatic arrival may not be the last of its kind.
“We have so many emails, messages,” she said. “People are desperately asking: we would like to come to New Zealand, how can we get there? Even if we have to do some kind of work, what do we have to do? Just get us out. “
“We had a crew man who sent me a message and said, ‘I’m currently working on a ship, if I’m jumping the boat too, do you think I could apply for asylum?'”
The group is Petition to Parliament to facilitate the resettlement of 1,000 Myanmar refugees whose families live in New Zealand. New Zealand has an annual quota of 1,500 refugees, a relatively low number among Western democracies that should be considered by refugee advocates and New Zealand’s Burmese community in response to the Myanmar crisis.
Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer and refugee lawyer in New Zealand, said the country had the capacity to do more.
New Zealand “as a progressive country should take on more responsibility” to help victims of rights violations, especially those fleeing persecution, said Boochani, who spent years in Australia’s much-criticized offshore detention system for asylum seekers.
Alexander Gillespie, a professor of international law at Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand, said he didn’t expect this to happen, noting that New Zealand had not followed the United States and Australia in increasing its quota to help people include that prior to the recent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
“If we couldn’t get a higher quota with Afghanistan, I think it is unlikely that we will get one with Myanmar,” he said.