The asylum sellers

Robert Wainwright
December 4, 2003

The people smuggling ring unearthed by the latest arrival of a boat off Melville Island has been operating untouched by the Federal Government for at least five years. Robert Wainwright investigates its origins.

From the air the wooden vessel was just a pinprick in the deep blue waters surrounding the uninhabited coral islands off Western Australia's remote north-west.

But a tiny fishing boat was a familiar sight for the Coastwatch pilot as he made his regular sweep of the Indian Ocean out toward the continental shelf. This was the 16th boatload for the year and the 88th since the start of the decade. Another sorry load would arrive a few weeks later. Most ended up in the same place, blown westward as they attempted the dangerous crossing from Indonesia to Darwin.

When the RAN reached the boat the next day - November 30, 1998 - its four crew and 15 passengers were sick and scared. They had been tossed through violent storms and heavy seas, stomachs churned by the constant smell of petrol fumes, unable to eat the boiled rice which was their only food and afraid to even open their eyes in case they saw their death approaching.

Of the wretched passengers, 11 were Turkish and four Iraqi. Most had never even seen the ocean before they ventured across the world from their homelands to Indonesia a few weeks before on the promise of a new life in Australia. They had believed the men to whom they had paid a total of $US55,000 that the 400-kilometre journey from the town of Kupang, on Indonesia's eastern fringes, to Darwin would take only four hours. Instead, the voyage took almost a week.

The story of those aboard the boat, code-named Ord by authorities, is a chilling insight into the people smuggling operations that have traded in human misery and brought 13,540 asylum seekers in 262 boats to Australia since the last months of 1989.

Three of the other men aboard the Ord have told their stories to the Herald, some in halting English learnt in the years since their arrival and others through an interpreter provided by the Auburn-based newspaper Turkish News Weekly.

The Ord was just the third boatload of Turkish nationals to make the trip. Five years later some estimate that the number of Turkish asylum seekers granted permanent protection visas and then citizenship could be as high as 400. Most won their citizenship by claiming they were Kurdish, fleeing vilification in a homeland torn by conflict, but, as some have now admitted, they were middle-class people seeking a better life.

The main facts of each of the men aboard the Ord are roughly the same: all young men of some financial means targeted in a cluster of Turkish towns and cities by smooth-talking businessmen promising a new and better life in a far-off country.

Suleyman (not his real name) remembers the day clearly when a man named Mehmet Seriban came to the coffee house where he was playing cards with friends and began asking if anyone was willing to pay $US5000 to go to Australia.

The sum was enormous for the 39-year-old carpenter from Gaziantep - equivalent to almost three years' salary he was earning in a furniture shop - but the lure of a new land with its promise of well-paid jobs and education for his four children was enough to convince him it was worth the risk of borrowing from his family and taking a chance.

Once he arrived he would bring his wife and children out through normal channels.

Any concerns he had were swept aside by Seriban, who was also from Gaziantep, an important industrial city and known for copperware, lahmacun (a kind of pizza) and the sweet pastry called baklava.

Seriban had already made the trip successfully, starting a new life in Sydney and now able to help his countrymen by arranging their journeys. His brother, Muslum Seriban, would also be making the trip.

What Suleyman did not know was that Seriban and his cohorts were telling the same story in nearby towns and cities.

Ahmet (not his real name) was recruited in Kahramanmaras, a city 80 kilometres north of Gaziantep known for its textile manufacturing and its ice-cream. He was approached by a different man who went by the name Hasan Demirci.

Like Seriban, Demirci had already made the trip to Australia and was now living in Perth with his family. Like Seriban, his brother, Ali Demirci, would be on the boat.

Ahmet was encouraged to take the offer because the asking price also included air fares from Turkey to Indonesia, and food and accommodation while waiting for the sea voyage to Australia.

The smugglers were also recruiting in Adiyaman, a city several hundred kilometres north-east of Gaziantep.

Like the others, Ali Cetin was disgruntled with his life as a mechanic in a bustling city where there never seemed to be enough money to do more than keep his wife and three children.

A different man - an Iranian named Ramazan - approached him and Cetin agreed to pay the same fee. The three men would not meet each other until they had reached Jakarta a few weeks later where Seriban was waiting to be paid.

IMMIGRATION Department records indicate that Mehmet Seriban probably arrived in Australia aboard one of two fishing boats - on December 20, 1993, when four Turkish nationals reached Troughton Island off Western Australia or August 25, 1995, when another six ended up near Ashmore Islands. All 10 men were granted asylum.

What is now known about the shadowy figure is that he lived and worked in Manly, mostly at a kebab shop on the Corso, but dreamed of establishing his own smuggling network.

By late 1998 Seriban was well advanced in his plans, and even attempted to recruit another Turkish man who managed the Manly shop. The man refused. A few months later, Seriban got what he was waiting for - an Australian passport which gave him the freedom he needed to move around the world.

The Ord shipment - with Suleyman, Ahmet and Ali Cetin - was the first of several, some with as many as 57 people aboard, others with a variety of nationalities as smugglers in Indonesia joined forces to ensure that they made a profit after expenses. At least six boats came in 1999 alone, carrying 187 asylum seekers.

When Suleyman, Ahmet, Cetin and their fellow passengers arrived in Indonesia in early November 1998, they were moved from town to town, eventually making their way to Bali and finally to Kupang.

Their apprehension grew as the men waited three days for torrential rain to clear so they could make their dash across the Indian Ocean.

They were under strict instructions that once at sea they should get rid of all official documentation, including passports, which would make it impossible for authorities to disprove their individual stories of persecution.

The boat trip struck problems almost as soon as they cleared land. It began to rain again and waves pitched the defenceless vessel west, missing their destination by 800 kilometres and washing them into the safety net of the Ashmore Islands.

The trip seemed worth it when all three men were granted permanent protection visas after a few months in detention at Port Hedland, but Suleyman realised his folly when visas for his wife and children were approved just three weeks later. The money and danger had not been necessary.

The family now lives in Auburn where his children go to the local primary and high schools. Though he is at present out of work, Suleyman does not regret coming to Australia; he just regrets how he arrived and meeting the men who profited.

Unlike Suleyman, Cetin wishes he had never made the move at all. Australia has not been the land of promise for him and his family, who followed soon after his arrival. His Mosman kebab shop has been a financial struggle, made worse by a falling out with his business partner, his fellow asylum seeker Ahmet.

In a strange twist, Cetin is now accused of turning into a people smuggler. Most of the 14 Turks who made an unsuccessful bid to reach Australia in a boat last month have identified Cetin as one of two men who arranged the trip. The other, they say, was Mehmet Seriban.

Cetin denies this, but admits to having travelled to Indonesia twice in the months after they arrived in Jakarta, and also visiting Turkey about the time the men were being recruited for their ill-fated trip.

Demirci lives in Perth where he also runs a kebab shop. When the Herald contacted him this week, he admitted knowing Cetin and Seriban but vehemently denied any involvement in people smuggling. He challenged Suleyman and Ahmet's claims that he was involved in their arrival in 1998.

Another Sydney man, Metin (not his real name), supports claims that Seriban is a ringleader in the smuggling operation. Metin arrived in February 1999 on Boat 97 with 31 others and has stayed in contact with Seriban, by phone, until about seven months ago when he says he refused demands for any extra money.

There are other men involved as well. At least one, a man named Eyup, has also come to Australia as an asylum seeker but was turned away and now also operates out of Indonesia. Four of the 14 men who arrived at Melville Island last month say their contact was Eyup.

Ali Kazil is one of those who was recruited by Eyup. The former jeweller was 19 years old when he left Kahramanmaras after paying Eyup more than $US7000. Asked about Eyup, Kazil's response was uncompromising: "All canini alsin". Roughly translated the phrase means "I hope he dies and goes to hell".

Those who got through via the network

November 30, 1998 15 aboard (11 Turks, four Iraqis), 14 granted visas, one deported.

February 21, 1999 32 Turks aboard, 19 granted visas, 13 deported.

April 21, 1999 three Turks aboard, all of whom were granted visas.

May 7, 1999 54 aboard (43 Turks, six Iraqis, four Afghans, one Kuwaiti), 39 granted visas, two in detention, 13 deported.

June 12, 1999 76 aboard (57 Turks, 10 Afghans, nine Iraqis), six in detention, 35 granted visas, 35 deported.

July 28, 1999 14 Turks aboard, 14 deported.

September 19, 1999 eight Turks aboard, two granted visas, one in detention, five deported.

November, 2003 14 Turks aboard. Towed from Melville Island.

Source: Department of Immigration. Department figures after 1999 do not indicate nationalities of asylum seekers.


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