Saturday 22 October 2016

Nightmare story of Europe's unwanted begins to unfold

Andrew Marzal

Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30

A migrant boy looks through a window on board a train bound for Serbia at the new transit centre for migrants at the border between Greece and Macedonia, near the town of Gevgelija
A migrant boy looks through a window on board a train bound for Serbia at the new transit centre for migrants at the border between Greece and Macedonia, near the town of Gevgelija

New details have begun to emerge about the grim discovery of 71 bodies on a roadside in Austria in what has been a particularly bleak week in Europe's migration crisis.

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Austrian police have confirmed that 71 refugees, including a baby girl, were found dead in an abandoned freezer truck, while Libya recovered the bodies of 82 migrants washed ashore after their overcrowded boat sank on its way to Europe. Scores more migrants are feared dead.

At least 180 were either dead or missing in the Libyan disaster. Both tragedies were a result of a renewed surge in migrants seeking refuge from war and poverty that has confronted Europe with its worst refugee crisis since World War Two.

Police have revealed that the migrants in Austria died inside the white refrigeration vehicle, which was designed to carry frozen food. The bodies were so tightly packed and decomposed that police were initially unable to count them accurately.

The vehicle, carrying Hungarian licence plates, was found on the A4 highway near the town of Parndorf. The white lorry displayed the slogan "Honest chicken" and "I taste so well because they feed me so well."

Its logos suggested the vehicle was owned by Hyza, a Slovak meat company controlled by Agrofert Holding, a Czech conglomerate. But a statement from Agrofert said the lorry had been sold last year - and the new owners had apparently failed to remove the insignia.


Those hiding on board had been dead for several days. Whether they were killed by asphyxiation, hypothermia or some other cause was unclear.

The truck was left at the lay-by on Wednesday with its rear door open. Its location suggested that this group of migrants had crossed into Austria from Hungary, which has become a major entry point for refugees trying to reach the EU.

The tragedy in Austria shocked European leaders, who were holding a summit on the migration crisis in Vienna, barely 30 miles away from the lorry packed with bodies.

The lorry was found near Austria's eastern border with Hungary. Police believe it was parked for at least 24 hours before the bodies were discovered.

In a separate incident, Hungarian police said 10 people were injured after a van carrying at least 18 Syrian migrants overturned on the M5 highway early in the morning. A Romanian man, believed to be the driver, was arrested.

The UN refugee agency said the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe had already passed 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014.

Three Bulgarians and an Afghan were arrested in connection with the truck deaths.

The victims - 59 men, eight women and four children, including a girl of one to two years old - were probably from Syria, police said.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said more than 2,500 people had died making the sea crossing this year, compared with 3,500 who died or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2014.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European Union leaders were ready for an emergency meeting, if needed, to discuss the refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, a security official in the western Libyan town of Zuwara, from where the doomed migrant boat had set off, said there were around 400 people on board.

Many appeared to have been trapped in the hold when it capsized.

"About 100 people are still missing," said Ibrahim al-Attoushi, a Red Crescent official, and 198 have been rescued. The migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco and Bangladesh, the security official said.

The Libyan coastguard has limited capabilities, relying on small inflatables, tug boats and fishing vessels.

Zuwara, near the Tunisian border, is a major launchpad for smugglers shipping migrants to Italy.

Libya is a major transit route for migrants hoping to make it to Europe. Smuggling networks exploit the country's lawlessness and chaos to bring Syrians into Libya via Egypt, while Africans arrive through Niger, Sudan and Chad.

The Italian coast guard said 1,430 people were rescued in operations off Libya on Thursday and a merchant ship sent to the aid of a small boat carrying 125 people recovered two bodies.

In Greece, coastguards said they rescued more than 1,600 migrants making their way to Greek islands near Turkey over the past three days.

Police in Sicily detained 10 people on suspicion of multiple homicide and aiding illegal immigration after 52 migrants were found dead in the hull of a boat this week.

One of the survivors, an Iraqi orthopaedic surgeon, said he had paid €3,000 to come up on to the top deck with his wife and two-year-old son.

Last week, 49 people died in another boat's hold after inhaling poisonous fumes and on Wednesday 21 people are thought to have died after a dinghy with 145 on board got into difficulty, UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

The incidents came as European governments struggled to cope with the arrival of tens of thousands of desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

Germany has announced a plan to reform the benefits paid to asylum seekers, while Italy prepared to house migrants in disused prisons.

Sweden has warned that Britain will eventually be forced to accept a quota of refugees.

Werner Faymann, the Austrian Chancellor, condemned the people traffickers who routinely smuggle their charges into Europe hidden inside lorries.

"Today refugees lost the lives they had tried to save by escaping - but lost them at the hands of traffickers," he said.

Morgan Johansson, the Swedish justice and migration minister, warned that countries like Ireland and Britain will be eventually be forced to take a share of these arrivals. "Every country that is a part of the European Union should do their share, and that goes for everyone," he said.

Sweden accepts more refugees per capita than any other EU member: over 8,400 per million people in 2014, compared with 500 per million in Britain. "When the UK is not doing their share, that creates bigger problems for the rest of us," added Mr Johansson.

He criticised British Prime Minister David Cameron for talking of "a swarm" of migrants in June. "You must ask David Cameron why he uses rhetoric like that," said Mr Johansson.

Italy, a main entry point for migrants using the Mediterranean route, is now considering a series of emergency measures to accommodate its new arrivals, including housing them inside old prisons, disused barracks - or even derelict factories.

In Germany, which receives the most asylum applications of any EU country, the government has proposed to cut the cash benefits given to asylum-seekers and give them food and clothing directly instead.

Any cash payments will only be made one month in advance. Germany's goal is to reduce the huge number of migrants who arrive from the Balkans with no realistic chance of being granted asylum.

Hashim Thaci, the foreign minister of Kosovo, said that his tiny country - the poorest and youngest in Europe - would help to manage the crisis. "I have nothing but sympathy when I see people fleeing for their lives," he said. "But at the same time, big global problems need big global solutions - and we can be part of that."

Prosecutors in Sicily say they have detained 10 people on suspicion of smuggling and murder for having allegedly crammed dozens of migrants into the airless hold of a boat where 52 bodies were found this week.

Carmine Mosca, head of the Palermo police squad, said yesterday that survivors of the deadly Mediterranean crossing recounted how the smugglers would beat the migrants back with knives if they tried to come out of the hold for air.

Palermo prosecutor Maurizio Scalia said the detained crew included seven Moroccans, two Syrians and a Libyan.

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