U.N. asks Vietnam and China to clarify fate of North Koreans

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations voiced alarm on Friday about the fate of nine North Koreans feared to have been deported from Vietnam via China back to their homeland, saying they might face torture or even execution.

Forcibly sending refugees back to a country where they could suffer persecution, a practice known as "refoulement", is banned under international treaties signed by China.

"We are alarmed at reports that nine North Korean nationals, including a one-year-old infant and a teenager, were arrested in Vietnam last month and subsequently transferred to China," U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told a briefing.

"There are fears that they may be – or may already have been – repatriated to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea where they would be at risk of very serious human rights violations."

The group were arrested in Vietnam on Oct. 22 and are thought to have been sent to the Chinese city of Shenyang, close to the North Korean border. In recent years many North Koreans have fled their country into China, traveled on to southeast Asia and then to South Korea or other countries.

Chinese authorities are believed to have been escorting the nine North Koreans, Shamdasani said.

"This series of events strongly suggests that the group is at imminent risk of being repatriated to the DPRK (North Korea) – and we are gravely concerned that they may already have been returned," she said.

"We urge the Chinese and Vietnamese authorities to publicly clarify the fate of the nine North Korean nationals. We further urge all concerned governments to refrain from forcibly returning individuals who have fled the DPRK."

A major U.N. human rights investigation found last year that North Koreans forcibly repatriated to Pyongyang are commonly subjected to torture, detention, execution, forced abortions or sexual violence, Shamdasani said.

The U.N. Committee against Torture met in Geneva this week to review China's record and raised concerns about its practice of returning North Koreans.

"Some illegal immigrants from DPRK entering China's territory for economic reasons do not meet conditions stipulated in the Convention relating to the status of refugees," Xu Hong, a senior official in China's foreign ministry, told the U.N. body of experts.

Some "criminals" had abused the principle of asylum in an "attempt to prolong and even escape extradition or repatriation", Xu said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Andrew Roche)