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Myanmar asylum seeker reaches New Zealand after jumping off boat and surviving 23 hours in icy waters

The asylum seeker said his family members are at risk because they belong to a Hindu minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar and took part in the pro-democracy uprising. (Reuters)
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A crewman from Myanmar who jumped ship off New Zealand is seeking asylum after rescuers pulled him out of the icy waters where he had spent 23 hours, in an extremely rare case of a migrant reaching the remote island-nation by sea.

Min Naing, identified only by part of his name, donned an immersion suit — a type of waterproof outfit that protects against hypothermia — and slipped off the vessel he was working on one night early last week. He spent 23 hours in the frigid waters before he was spotted by authorities and taken ashore on Nov. 2. Police described it as an “extraordinary survival story”; bad weather was approaching, and he could easily have been swept out to sea and vanished.

The incident highlights growing desperation in Myanmar, where a military coup took place Feb. 1, following decades of armed conflict, political repression and targeted campaigns against ethnic minorities like the Rohingya.

The 27-year-old Min Naing told local media that he had given up on surviving and was waiting to die, as the icy water seeped into his suit after hours at sea. He said that his family members are at risk because they belong to a Hindu minority group in the Buddhist-majority nation and took part in the pro-democracy uprising.

Min Naing couldn’t be reached Tuesday. His attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment. News of his rescue and asylum application was first reported by the New Zealand Herald.

New Zealand, which has a population of about 5 million, caps the number of refugees it takes in annually at 1,500. The country’s South Pacific location — its closest neighbor, Australia, is nearly 1,000 miles to the northwest — means the vast majority of refugees it accepts are preapproved by officials as part of the United Nations resettlement process.

New Zealand’s reputation as a compassionate nation has been boosted by international attention on its center-left prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, but migration remains a touchy political issue. Thousands of New Zealanders are still stuck abroad because of strict quarantine procedures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“You’ve got two options to become a refugee to New Zealand. … Get past Australia or come across Antarctica, and getting past Australia is quite a challenge,” said Alexander Gillespie, an international law expert at New Zealand’s University of Waikato. “It’s an amazing story. The chances of actually getting a boat down here are near zero.”

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Tin Ma Ma Oo, founder of New Zealand advocacy group Democracy for Myanmar, said Min Naing’s lawyers had advised him to “lay low” because of security concerns. Since his daring asylum bid, she said she had spoken to his family in Myanmar and had been contacted by several others who wished to follow suit. “It’s an extremely difficult situation for Myanmar people.”

More than 3 million people in Myanmar are in need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance because of widespread conflict, the pandemic and a flailing economy, a top U.N. humanitarian official said Monday.

“Without an end to violence and a peaceful resolution of Myanmar’s crisis, this number will only rise,” U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths said in a statement.

Since the country’s military seized power, several hundred thousand Myanmar residents have been forced to flee their homes because of fighting between opposition militias and the armed forces. In total, 223,000 people are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

New Zealand, which largely sealed its borders to keep out the coronavirus, recently resumed refugee resettlement. A petition before Parliament calls on the government to allow 1,000 refugees from Myanmar with family ties to New Zealand to enter, though officials have said the focus is on refugees from Afghanistan.

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Undocumented migration by sea in the South Pacific was rare even before the pandemic. Since 2013, neighboring Australia has applied a strict border policy of refusing to settle anyone who arrives by boat without permission. Canberra has turned away hundreds of vessels, though Wellington has on a number of occasions offered to resettle refugees who failed to reach Australia.

Gillespie, the law professor, said he doesn’t think the latest arrival “will be a flood gate to New Zealand,” though refugee flow from Myanmar in the coming months “could grow quite quickly” as the humanitarian situation worsens.

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