Egypt should cease summary returns and provide the United Nations access to 48 asylum seekers, most of whom appear to have fled war-torn Darfur, Human Rights Watch said today. Egypt reportedly forcibly returned at least five of the group to Sudan on October 28.

Forty-four Sudanese, three Ivorians and one Somali have been held in incommunicado detention since Israel forcibly transferred them to Egypt on August 18, after they crossed briefly into Israel. Twenty-three in the group are known to be refugees or to have made asylum claims. At the time of the transfers, Israel claimed that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had assured Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that Egypt would not return refugees to Sudan. Egypt has denied any such agreement, and will not acknowledge the group’s continued detention or provide any further information about them.

“We are extremely worried by Egypt’s failure to account for these people,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The entire incident reveals Egypt and Israel’s shared disregard for the plight of Sudanese fleeing Darfur.”

According to media reports, Egypt forcibly returned at least five of the 48 detainees to Sudan on October 28 after having held them at an unknown location. The Cairo office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Human Rights Watch that in addition to the 23 refugees or persons who have registered claims for asylum, others in the group may also be refugees, although their status has not yet been assessed. In August, Egypt provided UNHCR with the names of the persons Israel forcibly transferred, allowing the agency to ascertain the refugee status of some. Since then, Egypt has rebuffed repeated UNHCR requests for access to the detainees to determine the refugee status of all the group members.

“Egypt cannot avoid its obligation to assess the refugee status of persons fleeing a conflict by preventing the UN refugee agency from seeing them,” said Whitson. “Egypt is thumbing its nose at a fundamental principle of refugee law.”

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel and Egypt are party, forbids the forcible transfer or return of any person to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened. Every government is obliged to assess whether a person is a refugee before returning or transferring them to a country where they could have a well-founded fear of persecution.

In addition to being forcibly returned to the armed conflict in Sudan, the five or more Sudanese could face persecution because they had sought refuge in Israel, which Sudan considers an enemy state. The Sudanese Foreign Ministry stated in September that visiting Israel was a crime. In July, the Sudanese Refugees Commissioner claimed that Sudanese refugees in Israel wanted to “implement Zionism agendas against Sudan,” and called on Egyptian authorities to “firmly penalize any Sudanese refugees if they were found trying to infiltrate through Egypt into Israel.”

“In the face of Sudan’s record of rights abuses and its hostility toward its citizens who seek refuge in Israel, Egypt’s apparent decision to forcibly return Sudanese asylum seekers is unconscionable,” Whitson said.

Israel handed over the 48 migrants to Egypt on August 18, within 24 hours of detaining them as they crossed the border, and without affording them the opportunity to present claims for asylum. Israeli soldiers had previously witnessed Egyptian soldiers shooting and beating to death three Sudanese who had attempted to cross from Egypt into Israel.