KECSKEMET (Hungary) • Hungarian prosecutors yesterday moved to detain for one month three Bulgarians and one Afghan citizen suspected to have transported 71 refugees who were found dead in a truck along an Austrian motorway.
The deaths caused an international outcry and highlighted the dangers facing the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have chosen to flee violence and poverty in the Middle East and Africa to try to settle in the European Union.
The suspects, handcuffed, led on a leather leash and each carrying a bottle of water, were escorted by special police forces to the court house yesterday in the central Hungarian town of Kecskemet, where the truck began its final journey.
A prosecution spokesman told journalists the four faced human trafficking charges involving torture and targeting financial gain.
The four suspects, who face prison terms ranging from two to 16 years each, are not being charged with manslaughter in Hungary because they will face that charge in Austria, prosecution spokesman Gabor Schmidt said.
They are believed by police to be low-ranking members of one of the numerous human-trafficking gangs that prey on the tens of thousands of migrants fleeing to Europe.
"This is a human tragedy that requires a determined collective political response. It is a crisis of solidarity, not a crisis of numbers," United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said on Friday.
"I appeal to all governments involved to provide comprehensive responses, expand safe and legal channels of migration and act with humanity, compassion and in accordance with their international obligations," he said.
The truck, found on Thursday on an Austrian motorway in the baking sun near the Hungary border, contained the tightly packed, decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women and four children including a little girl, all thought to be Syrians.
The grisly discovery came as yet another boat crammed with desperate migrants sank in the Mediterranean off Libya. Seventy-six bodies were recovered but the United Nations said up to 200 people on two vessels were feared drowned.
The UN estimates that 300,000 people have fled conflict and hardship in the Middle East and Africa for a better life in Europe this year, and 2,500 have died in the attempt, mostly in the Mediterranean.
Austrian newspaper Kurier quoted a government official specialising in human trafficking as estimating that the people inside the lorry would have paid smugglers a total of around €700,000 (S$1.1 million) for their entire journey.
The public prosecutor in Burgenland wants to have the suspects extradited to Austria, where they could be tried for murder.
The discovery of the truck in Austria, a rare occurrence on land in a prosperous country when so many migrants have died at sea, provoked a wave of horror across Europe.
Austrian daily Oesterreich calculated that the 71 were crammed into 15 sq m of space and would have suffocated in little over an hour once they were shut inside with no air, the children succumbing first.
Austrian motorway maintenance workers alerted police after noticing "decomposing body fluids" dripping from the truck, police chief Hans Peter Doskozil of the Austrian state of Burgenland said. The police were confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs. Forensics experts worked all night to clear out the vehicle. TV images showed flies buzzing around the back of the vehicle.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has said that the migration crisis is a bigger test for the European Union than even the Greek financial meltdown.
She said on Friday that European interior ministers meeting during the weekend would be looking into "rapid changes to the asylum system", and that leaders could hold an emergency summit meeting "if the preliminary work is done".
Meanwhile, the German government said it was sending police reinforcements to the eastern state of Saxony, following violent anti-migrant protests which prompted a ban on rallies in Heidenau, a town of around 16,000 inhabitants near Dresden that has become the focus of the country's struggle to absorb a vast wave of asylum seekers expected to reach a record 800,000 this year.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, THE NEW YORK TIMES