Nine North Korean refugees captured in Laos have been forcibly repatriated to their country, triggering outcry and concern among human rights groups.

According to Yonhap news agency, citing a top foreign ministry official in Seoul, the defectors were rounded up by authorities in Laos after crossing into China and were waiting to be handed over to South Korean authorities, as is the custom for refugees from North Korea.

But the nine young defectors, many of whom are orphans, were deported to North Korea, where they will likely face punishment, reports AFP.

The South Korean foreign ministry said it had requested the Lao government hand them over but that this was rejected. The defectors were then brought to China and were sent back to North Korea on Tuesday.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is “deeply concerned about the safety and fundamental human rights of these individuals if they are returned to the DPRK,” Antonio Guterres, head of the UN refugee agency, said in a statement.

The agency said it is seeking information on the whereabouts of the nine North Koreans and that it was in contact with authorities in Lao to establish the initial facts behind the case.