The U.N. human rights chief has expressed dismay that Laos and China returned nine young North Korean defectors, all reportedly orphans, in apparent violation of their international obligations.

The U.N. deputy spokesman says the office of Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay is urging Chinese and Laotian authorities to publicly clarify the fate of the nine defectors and the conditions under which they were returned to North Korea.

Spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Pillay's office has also requested that North Korea's government provide independent and immediate access to the group, which includes up to five minors.

Del Buey said Friday that the U.N. rights office "is extremely concerned for the protection of this group ... who are at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment upon their return."