China says 109 ethnic Uighurs who were deported from Thailand last week were heading to Turkey, Syria or Iraq to join Islamic militants.
Beijing defended the return of the group Saturday in response to international criticism by the United States, the United Nations and independent human rights groups who expressed concerns the Uighurs could be subjected to serious abuses upon their return.
"As we all know, it's a universally recognized crime to engage in illegal immigration or people smuggling by means such as using fake passports, which severely disrupts the normal international order of exit and entry," said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying.
"The extradition of these illegal migrants back to China according to relevant international convention and bilateral agreements is a normal state-to-state cooperation in combating illegal immigration and people smuggling, as well as our international responsibility and obligation."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also said it had lodged a formal protest with the U.S. State Department over its criticism of the deportations.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said 13 of the 109 repatriated Uighurs had fled China after being implicated in terrorist activities. Video on Chinese state television showed footage of some of the Uighurs sitting in an aircraft with hoods on their heads and Chinese police sitting next to them.
The Uighurs are a group of Turkic-speaking Muslims in China's northwestern Xinjiang region. Thousands of Uighurs have fled the region in recent years to escape what they say is religious and economic discrimination at the hands of Chinese officials.
The group repatriated from Thailand had been detained there for over a year as illegal immigrants. Bangkok said it deported the group after it was determined they were Chinese. A government spokesman said Thursday it had received assurances from Beijing the migrants would not be harmed, but the decision sparked angry protests in Istanbul.
China denies mistreating the Uighurs. It has launched a crackdown in Xinjiang, which has been plagued by violent attacks in recent years that Beijing has blamed on Islamic militants.