A human rights group is urging North Korea to "immediately reveal" the whereabouts of nine North Korean refugees who are believed to have been forced back to Pyongyang from Beijing.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, says the refugees, aged 15 to 23, are at "dire risk" because North Korea is known to torture those caught trying to escape and those sent back.
"They will probably be sent to forced labor camps where they will be deprived of food and medical services, abused by the guards and forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions."
On Thursday, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, expressed "extreme concern" for the nine refugees. He said he is worried about the penalties and treatment they could face if returned to North Korea.
Reports say the North Koreans were arrested in Laos this month and that authorities there turned them over to China.
The Wall Street Journal said this is "the first known case" of Laos cooperating with North Korea to send back defectors.
Human Rights Watch said that under international law, people have the right not to be forcibly returned to a place where they face persecution. But Robertson said the Lao and Chinese did not respect that right.
"In this instance, it was clear that Laos and China collaborated with the North Korean government to abuse their rights. You know, what we saw was Laos and China again demonstrating their disregard for human rights by allowing the North Korean government to forcibly return these nine people. The Lao and the Chinese should have been fulfilling their obligations to allow refugee status determination for this group, not sending them back into harm's way."
Human Rights Watch says North Korean officials are believed to have accompanied the nine on their journey from Laos to China and from there to Pyongyang.