Myanmar crewman jumped off ship to seek asylum in New Zealand

A man who jumped off a cargo ship in the hope of seeking asylum in New Zealand says he was “just waiting to die” after spending nearly 24 hours in freezing water.

“I was praying, trying to swim, praying, swimming. Finally, I gave up everything … I was just waiting to die,” the Myanmar national told the Herald after a dramatic rescue this week.

The 27-year-old crewman leapt off the Paovosa Wisdom VII and into the sea near Gisborne on Monday evening, in the hope of fleeing the military regime in Myanmar and seeking asylum in New Zealand.

The weather was good at the time but turned as Min Naing, who is only using his first name to protect his family’s safety back home, was swimming and the strong current pulled him offshore.

“The water was 15C, it felt like ice water.”

Min Naing was wearing an immersion suit but water had seeped in after hours of swimming, soaking him completely long before he was rescued.

“It got colder, and colder, until I couldn’t move, just floating in the water.

Rescuers on the Eastland Port pilot vessel Rere Moana spotted him just before 5pm on Tuesday. He says he shouted for help, and they came to his rescue.

“I was crying, smiling, I didn’t know what to do. I was very happy they rescued me.”

He was taken to Gisborne Hospital suffering from hypothermia and is now isolating after a negative Covid-19 test.

Darren Paki, the area prevention manager for police, said Min Naing was now in good health and staying at a facility in Gisborne where he will see out his quarantine period in isolation as a precaution.

“This really was an extraordinary survival story because he was in the water for 23 hours,” he said. “But he was so lucky he was found when he was, given how bad the weather has become since Tuesday afternoon.”

Paki said Min Naing had obviously left the ship prepared and had climbed down a rope to get over the side of the ship.

District health board Hauora Tairāwhiti says Min Naing is being supported while in isolation, and medical officer of health Dr Osman David Mansoor has assessed the situation as low risk.

The crewman was due to return to Myanmar at the end of his contract in two months’ time, but said his life would be in danger if he went home.

He said his family are in hiding. They belong to the marginalised Hindu minority group in the Buddhist majority country and had taken part in the nationwide pro-democracy uprising.

Myanmar has been mired in violence and civil unrest since the military seized power in February, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Protesters against the takeover who faced beatings, shootings and arrests have turned increasingly to armed resistance, and insurgents are active in many parts of the country.

People would be detained one day, and be dead the next, Min Naing said.

“They can come and arrest us at any time, we never know when. Everyone is afraid. Life in Myanmar is dangerous for all Myanmar people.”

The thought of being arrested and tortured by the Tatmadaw pushed him overboard, he said.

“If I go home they can detain me and do anything (they wanted) to me.

“I wasn’t thinking about dying. I just did it.”

Myanmar community representatives in Auckland are supporting Min Naing and have made contact with his family to let them know he is alive.

Tinmama Oo, chairwoman of the NZ advocacy group Democracy for Myanmar, believes the dangerous attempt is the first of its kind since the February coup.

“I haven’t seen anything like that.”

“That’s the level of risk people are willing to take,” she said, “People in Myanmar are desperate to leave, they have no hope in the country.”

Immigration New Zealand says it can neither confirm nor deny whether it has received any claim for asylum under the Immigration Act.

“Asylum claims are very sensitive in nature and are often made because the individual has a fear of persecution in their country or otherwise fear returning there,” said Jock Gilray, acting general manager for Border and Visa Operations.

Police say Min Naing will not be facing any charges but they have been in contact with the ship’s captain and its agent. Paki said Immigration NZ would also be in contact with his family in Myanmar.

New Zealand accepts about 1500 refugees every year.

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