Colombo: Australian coastguard intercepted a boat carrying Sri Lankan nationals off the coast of Indonesia and handed over 37 asylum-seekers to the Lankan authorities, who arrested them for breaching immigration laws.
The Sri Lankans are the first to be turned back in five months as Australia's Supreme Court hears a test case challenging the government's right to intercept asylum seekers' boats outside its territorial waters.
The coastguard intercepted the vessel carrying the Sri Lankans, attempting to travel illegally by boat to Australia, near the Indonesian coast on November 26 and handed over the asylum-seekers to Sri Lanka's navy.
Sri Lankan police spokesman and Superintendent Ajith Rohana said the boat had left Sri Lanka on November 1 and had six children on board.
"They were handed over to the Sri Lanka Navy on November 27," Rohana said.
He said that 37 people were arrested and investigations are being conducted by the anti-people smuggling unit of the Criminal Investigation Department.
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
Australia has given 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 faces international censure over its treatment of boat people, who are denied resettlement in Australia and sent to camps in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific state of Nauru.