Sri Lanka arrests 37 asylum seekers turned back by Australia

Sri Lanka's police arrested Friday 37 nationals turned back by Australian authorities on the high seas after attempting to seek asylum, in the first such case in four months, an officer said. Superintendent Ajith Rohana said Australia's coastguard intercepted the trawler carrying the Sri Lankans near the Indonesian coast, before handing the asylum-seekers over to Sri Lanka's navy on Thursday. "The boat left Sri Lanka on November 1," Rohana said, adding that six children were among the passengers. "Investigations are being conducted by the anti-people smuggling unit of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department)," Rohana said. "They are being held in custody, but will be taken before a magistrate shortly." The returns were the first since July when a boat loaded with 41 nationals was intercepted by Australia. Sri Lanka charged them with illegally leaving the country, and their cases are due to be taken up by a court next May. Australia has gifted two vessels to Sri Lanka's navy to patrol its shores and stop boats leaving the island, as part of Canberra's hardline border protection policy. Australia's conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power in September last year vowing to stop asylum-seekers arriving on rickety boats following dangerous voyages. Australia faces international censure over its treatment of boatpeople who are denied resettlement in Australia and sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific state of Nauru.