Laos broke its silence Friday over its much-criticized deportation of nine North Korean defectors, saying it had handed them directly to North Korea and not to China as widely reported.
News reports, some quoting South Korean officials, had said that Laos had deported the defectors, some as young as 14 years old, to China which then repatriated them to North Korea this week without having their asylum claims assessed.
North Korean defectors face harsh punishment, including the death penalty, on their return home.
The Lao Foreign Ministry said in a two-paragraph statement sent to RFA's Lao Service that the Lao government had handed the nine North Koreans to the North Korean Embassy in Vientiane.
It said that the nine North Koreans, aged between 14 to 18 years, and two South Koreans were detained by police in Oudomxay province bordering China. It accused the South Koreans of committing human trafficking.
"On 10th May 2013, the police of Oudomxay Province of the Lao PDR detained 11 Koreans and had subsequently transferred them to Vientiane for investigation," the statement said.
"As a result of the investigation, it has been identified that nine of them are the citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) aged between 14 to 18 years who have illegally entered into the Lao PDR, while the other two are the citizens of the Republic of Korea (ROK) who have committed human trafficking."
"In accordance with the Law of the Lao PDR, particularly the Prime Minister’s Decree No. 136 on Immigration and Foreigners Control, and after coordination between the Lao authorities concerned and the concerned Embassies in Vientiane, the Lao side has handed over the nine citizens of the DPRK and the two citizens of the ROK to their respective Embassies on 27th May 2013 and 28th May 2013, respectively," the statement said.
There was no reference to China in the statement or whether the defectors had been sent to North Korea or China.
Reports had said the nine were returned to China on Monday and flown back to North Korea the following day.
Beijing has not commented on the issue so far.
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. refugee agency UNHCR had expressed concern that the deported individuals did not have a chance to have their asylum claims assessed.
“We have received credible information that the nine young North Korean defectors were subsequently returned to DPRK via China,” a spokesperson for the U.N. human rights office (OHCHR), Rupert Colville, said, according to a statement issued by the Geneva-based office.
Colville added that OHCHR was “extremely concerned” about the protection of the group members “who are at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment upon their return.”
"We are dismayed that the Governments of Laos and China appear to have abrogated their non-refoulement obligations, especially given the vulnerability of this group, all of whom are reported to be orphans."
"We urge the Chinese and Laotian authorities to publicly clarify the fate of the nine young North Koreans, as well as the conditions under which they were returned, and request the Government of DPRK to provide immediate access to the group by independent actors to verify their status and treatment," the statement said.
The U.N. General Assembly, in successive resolution, has expressed serious concern about the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers expelled or returned to North Korea and the sanctions imposed on those repatriated from abroad.
On Friday, South Korean activists criticized Laos during a rally outside its embassy in Seoul.
"We are here to call on Laos not to deport North Korean defectors because there is concern they may be tortured when sent back," the Associated Press quoted Lee Ho-taek, head of a group that provides refugees with support, as saying.
Close to 25,000 North Koreans have come to South Korea since the end of the Korean War. The vast majority of them hid in China and Southeast Asian countries including Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam before flying to Seoul.
China, North Korea's key ally, does not recognize defectors as asylum seekers and has been known to return them to Pyongyang.
"North Korea has to come clean on where these nine refugees are and publicly guarantee that they will not be harmed or retaliated against for having fled the country," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "As a result of their return, they are at dire risk."
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.