GENEVA The United Nations has "credible information" that China has returned nine young North Korean defectors to their homeland, where they face possible severe punishment or even execution for having fled, it said on Friday.
There was no immediate comment from China on the possible deportation. International law requires that a person be allowed to apply for asylum and not be expelled to a country where his life or freedom may be under threat.
The U.N. human rights office called on Pyongyang to allow independent monitors to visit the alleged defectors to ensure their well-being.
The nine, all believed to be orphans, were first sent by Laotian police to China this week after crossing that border.
"We have received credible information that nine young North Korean defectors arrested in Laos have now been returned to North Korea via China," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.
He declined to reveal the source of the report, saying it needed special protection.
"We are extremely concerned for the protection of this group, which includes up to five minors, who are at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment upon their return," he said.
The U.N. human rights office has raised the issue with both Chinese and North Korean authorities, he said.
"We request the government of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) to provide immediate access to the group by independent actors to verify their status and treatment," he said.
UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, said it was seeking clarification from both China and Laos.
"We remain greatly concerned about this group, especially as among them there are five children," spokesman Dan McNorton said.
On Thursday, the independent U.N. human rights investigator on North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, voiced concern at their fate, saying no one should be forced to return to North Korea where, he said, "they may face persecution or severe punishment, including torture and the death penalty".