71 'Syrians' dead in Austria truck tragedy

71 'Syrians' dead in Austria truck tragedy
Police have arrested three people in Hungary overnight in connection with the deaths of 71 migrants, believed to be Syrians, found in a refrigerated truck abandoned on Austria's main highway.
4 min read
28 August, 2015
The number of people risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean has exceeded 300,000 [Getty]

Austrian police said Friday three people have been arrested over the gruesome discovery of 71 bodies in an abandoned lorry, with the victims believed to be Syrians.

A toddler, three young boys and eight women were among the dead in the latest horrific tragedy in Europe's unrelenting migrant crisis.

Another 76 bodies were recovered in the Mediterranean off Libya after yet another boat crammed with migrants sank, while a Swedish coastguard ship docked in Sicily carrying a grim cargo of 52 dead.

     Police were confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs in the truck

Austrian police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said Syrian travel documents were found in the truck abandoned on a motorway near the Hungarian border, suggesting the group were "likely" Syrians.

"Among these 71 people, there were 59 men, eight women and four children including a young girl one or two years old and three boys aged eight, nine or 10," he told a news conference.

He said three people were in custody in Hungary - believed to be the owner of the truck and two drivers.

Austrian motorway maintenance workers first saw the 7.5-tonne refrigerated poultry truck and noticed "decomposing body fluids" dripping from the vehicle, Doskozil said.

Police were confronted by an overpowering stench and a mass of tangled limbs in the truck and forensics experts worked all night to clear out the vehicle, which had Hungarian plates.

The state of the corpses suggested that those inside had been dead for some time.

Television images showed flies buzzing around the back of the vehicle in the baking sun.

'Who will stop this madness?'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Austria for a summit with Balkan leaders on Europe's migrant crisis on Thursday, said all those present 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," she  said.

"Today is a dark day. This tragedy affects us all deeply," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said Thursday.

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.

Austrian newspaper Kurier carried a black front page with the headline: "Who will stop this madness?"

European Union leaders have struggled to get to grips with a crisis that has seen nearly 340,000 migrants cross the bloc's borders this year - not counting August - many from hotspots like Iraq and Syria.

Millions of other refugees have sought refuge in places like Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

300,000 people cross Mediterranean to Europe 

     Over 2,500 men, women and children have drowned trying to reach EU nations

"If the stink from our car parks gets stronger perhaps we will finally understand, not just in Austria that it is time to create safe routes to Europe, fast registration and a swift and a fair sharing out (of migrants)," said Amnesty International's Austrian chief Heinz Patzelt.

The United Nations said Friday that the number of refugees and migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean to Europe has soared past 300,000 so far this year.

Over 2,500 men, women and children have drowned trying to reach EU nations after rickety overcrowded boats operated by often unscrupulous people-smugglers capsized.

In the latest disaster at sea, at least 76 people died after a ship carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the coast of Libya, a spokesman for the Libyan Red Crescent said Friday, with 198 rescued.

The Italian coast guard said it had rescued around 1,400 people off Libya on Thursday, a day after it pulled another 3,000 to safety from the same area.

Swedish officials said the Poseidon docking in Palermo had rescued 130 people Wednesday from a rubber dinghy and another 442 from a wooden boat found drifting off Libya that also contained 52 bodies.

But the events in Austria have brought home that even when migrants make it across the Mediterranean, their troubles are far from over, with many forced to put their fate in the hands of profit-hungry people-smugglers.

Since the lorry had Hungarian plates, the victims were highly likely among the more than 100,000 people to have trekked up through the western Balkans into EU member Hungary this year.

From Hungary, which is laying a barbed-wire barrier along its border with Serbia to be followed by a four-metre (13-foot) high fence, many migrants try to make it - via Austria - to richer nations like Germany and Sweden.

"We passed by sea. And the sea was just a game playing with our lives," said Lashkari, a 30-year-old Afghan picked up by Hungarian border police on Thursday night after travelling for 30 days.

"I dont think we've reached our final destination yet, because after this we don't know where do we go," he told AFP.