VIENNA (AFP) - Austrian police found the decomposing bodies of up to 50 migrants in an abandoned truck on Thursday, sparking a cross-border hunt for the people smugglers responsible for the latest tragedy in Europe’s migrant crisis.
The grisly discovery near the Slovakia and Hungary borders came as more migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and European leaders again met to try to find ways to handle the tide of people seeking refuge in the European Union.
Austrian police said the vehicle found abandoned in the emergency lane of a motorway had “decomposing body fluids” dropping from it.
When they opened it, there was a powerful stench of human decay and the bodies lay piled on top of each other, crammed into a small rectangular space in a sea of tangled limbs.
Officers at the scene were unable to determine the exact number of dead, assess people’s gender or determine whether there were any children among them.
There were “at least 20, but there could be as many as 40 or 50", said police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil.
The van had the markings of a Slovakian poultry company and Hungarian number plates.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Austria for a summit with Balkan leaders on the crisis, said she was “shaken” by the “horrible” news.
“This is a warning to us to tackle this migrants issue quickly and in a European spirit, which means in a spirit of solidarity, and to find solutions,” Merkel said.
“Today is a dark day... This tragedy affects us all deeply,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told a press conference.
Mikl-Leitner vowed to crack down on the people who pocket exorbitant sums to arrange migrants’ passage to Europe, and then often leave them stranded en route.
“Human traffickers are criminals,” she said.
Hungary said it would join the investigation into the tragedy.
- NEW LIBYA SHIPWRECK -
Thursday’s grim discovery in Austria brought home how dangerous the land journey for migrants through eastern and southeastern Europe is, after many have already survived a perilous sea crossing.
So far this year, over 2,300 men, women and children have drowned in the Mediterranean after rickety boats operated by people-smugglers capsized.
Libya’s coastguard said on Thursday evening that at least 30 more people had died in the shipwreck of a boat carrying around 200 migrants bound for Europe.
“We have recovered 30 bodies so far and rescued dozens of people, with dozens more still missing after a boat carrying around 200 migrants sank off (the western port of) Zuwara,” a coastguard official told AFP.
Italy’s coastguard said it had coordinated the rescue of around 1,400 migrants on Thursday, bringing to over 4,000 the numbers brought ashore in two days.
But the latest sinking comes a day after at least 55 bodies were found on three overcrowded migrant boats, 52 of whom were found dead in the hold of an overcrowded vessel found drifting off Libya.
“I started checking people for signs of life, and I stopped counting after 24,” Canadian doctor Simon Bryant, on a mission with Doctors Without Borders, told AFP as he described the scene on board the boat found on Wednesday.
“I just quickly checked for signs of life and moved on. There was water in the boat, some people were half in the water, face down.”
- EU POLICY ‘HAS FAILED’ -
Another 2,500 people, mostly refugees fleeing wars in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, were headed north by bus through Serbia on Thursday to the border with Hungary, a bus station official in Belgrade said.
“Around 50 buses have left, or will leave Belgrade for Subotica and Kanjiza (on the Hungarian border) today,” he told AFP.
Hungary, an EU member state on the bloc’s southeast border, has received more than 100,000 arrivals this year.
European leaders have come under fire for failing to tackle the arrival of several hundred thousand migrants this year, many fleeing hotspots such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The tragic event shows how the EU’s migration policy has failed,” Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz said.
“Instead of the current unregulated border-crossing, controlled border-crossing and border defence is needed to avoid such cases happening.” The countries of the western Balkans have become a major route for migrants and refugees trying reach the EU.
Speaking at a meeting in Vienna on Thursday, Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said the Balkans were “bearing the brunt of the problem”.
His remarks were echoed by his counterpart from Macedonia, which last week shut its border with Greece for three days after being inundated with migrants.
“Unless we have a European answer to this issue, none of us should be under any illusion that this will be solved,” Nikola Poposki said.
Reiterating his call for a reform of EU rules “to distribute refugees fairly", Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeier said Berlin would contribute one million euros (S$1.6 million) to help.
But with large numbers of people from the western Balkans among the migrants, he also called on governments there to make clear to their citizens that their chances of obtaining asylum in Germany are “virtually non-existent”.