Concern is growing about the well-being of the 48 African refugees, most of them Sudanese, who have been unaccounted for since they were detained by Egyptian security forces more than two months ago after being deported by the IDF to Sinai.
At least five of the detainees were deported back to Sudan, one was allegedly tortured in Egypt and, according to UN officials, the government of Hosni Mubarak is refusing to disclose where any of the people it imprisoned are.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees confirmed Friday that the 48 expelled persons, including children, have been unaccounted for since their arrest by Egyptian authorities on August 19.
"We're concerned about their well being," said Peter Kessler, senior external affairs officer for UNHCR.
"We've been requesting information about them and their whereabouts since August and we haven't received anything." Kessler said. "We are concerned about the lack of information."
"Some of these persons are refugees who are known to us or are other persons of concern to UNHCR and others may, as a result of various things, now have a valid asylum claim. We are actively advocating on behalf of their release."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said repeatedly that he has assurances from Mubarak that deportees would not be mistreated or sent back to Sudan, where they could face life imprisonment or the death penalty for having been in Israel. Olmert has not provided proof of this and Egypt has not confirmed the existence of such an agreement.
UNHCR does not know if the deportees are still in detention but its working assumption is that they are, Kessler said
The forty eight refugees were deported in what was termed a "hot deportation" carried out without their being granted a hearing and within 24 hours of their arrival in Israel from Sinai. One of the 48 was reached by phone Saturday by a relative in Israel. "She is in Sudan," the relative said. She had been deported by airplane back to Sudan with four other people who were among the group of 48 deportees.. She said she had been in prison in Egypt for over three weeks when she was deported. The woman deportee said that those among the 48 without UN refugee cards were being deported by the Egyptians back to Sudan. She said that other people had been deported back to Sudan before her group was, the relative said.
In Sudan, officials released the woman from custody but told her they would be back in contact with her because she had travelled to Israel, the relative said.
An Egyptian legal source said Friday that a Sudanese couple among the detained refugees had been released from detention by Egyptian authorities after the husband was tortured during an interrogation centering on why he had gone to Israel.
"They poured boiling water on his body and took the man and blindfolded his eyes and said 'if you don't tell us the real reason you went there we will shoot you'."said the legal source.
The source said there have been other instances of refugees who have been tortured after being caught by Egyptian security forces while trying to cross to Israel.
There have also been a series of incidents during recent months in which Egyptian security forces shot and killed unarmed refugees trying to cross from Sinai into Israel..
Referring to the other 46 deported refugees, the legal source said: "No one really knows where they are now"
Requests for a response by the Egyptian embassy had not been answered by press time.
.The UK based Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance group is also worried. "I am very concerned, as everyone should be, about these 46 people." Said Barbara Harrell Bond, a Cairo-based member of AMERA's board of directors who is also a professor at the forced migration and refugees study program of the American University in Cairo..
Harrell-Bond said the torture allegation should be taken "absolutely seriously"
"We can assume that people who are in prison in Egypt are subject to torture by officials and it can be worse still if they are in with other criminals. The situation is just hellish within Egyptian prisons," said Harrell-Bond
We know that they have been detained for no good reason. There should be no punishment for an attempt to find a safer place or a place where they would enjoy their rights." She said
Harrell-Bond criticized Israel for sending the refugees back "when there is concern about their safety and protection"in Egypt.
The Hotline for Migrant Workers and the Refugee Rights Clinic of Tel Aviv University say the expulsion was illegal and violated Israel's commitments under the 1951 International Convention on Refugees. State Attorney Yochi Gnessin defended the expulsion policy during an initial high court hearing last month, arguing that a formal written agreement between Egypt and Israel on how deportees are treated ? like the one between the United States and Canada - should not be a precondition for the expulsions.
Egyptian security forces killed at least thirty Sudanese refugees while breaking up a protest encampment opposite the UNHCR offices in Cairo in 2005.
Asked about the disappearance of those deported on August 19, Foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said: "The Egyptians assured us that they treat refugees in their territory fairly."