News about the corpses instantly overshadowed a meeting of European leaders and transfixed Europe with fresh worries that the scope and complexity of the crisis had escalated.
The legions of desperate people fleeing war and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa have long known they were risking harm from unscrupulous smugglers and death at sea to reach the safety of Europe. But it became shockingly clear Thursday that they now face the same dangers within Europe’s borders.
A white truck filled with the bodies of up to 50 smuggled migrants was found abandoned near Vienna in the summer heat. The discovery came just as European leaders were meeting nearby to cope with the migration crisis.
News about the corpses instantly overshadowed the meeting and transfixed Europe with fresh worries that the scope and complexity of the crisis had escalated.
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European Union officials have been struggling for ways to control the tens of thousands of people who are reaching the continent, without forfeiting the free movement between member countries that is a fundamental part of life in the 28-nation bloc. Now its members are confronting human traffickers who are exploiting the open borders.
“We are all shaken by this terrible news that up to 50 people have lost their lives because they got into a situation where smugglers did not care about their lives,” Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said at a news conference at the Vienna meeting.
Merkel emphasized what she called the need for Europe to pull together and ease the crisis, part of the biggest wave of refugees since World War II. But the meeting ended with no apparent consensus.
People fearful of death at sea in overcrowded and flimsy boats have increasingly turned to a land route to Europe through the Western Balkans. But the discovery of the bodies in the truck on the main highway connecting Vienna to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, showed there is no truly safe path.
The people in the truck were thought to be among those on their way through Central Europe and toward the wealthier countries — particularly Germany — in the north.
The precise death toll had yet to be determined by late Thursday, but more than 20 bodies — and as many as 50 — were believed to be in the truck, said Hans Peter Doskozil, director of the police in the eastern state of Burgenland. He said the count was hindered by the advanced state of decomposition.
The discovery was made after a highway worker alerted the police that the truck, with Hungarian license plates, was parked in the emergency lane of a highway in the Neusiedl am See region, near the Hungarian border.
Janos Lazar, chief of staff to Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, said authorities believed the truck had been part of a human-trafficking operation, and that the victims “were illegal migrants who were trying to reach the West through Hungary or with the help of Hungarians.”
The discovery was a new twist on a summer of tragedy for migrants, who have drowned at sea by the thousands and been injured or worse in accidents during their attempts to reach safety and jobs in the EU.
A day earlier, Italian officials announced the discovery of 50 bodies in the hold of a ship that appeared to have departed Libya bound for Italy.
Thousands cross from Greece daily with the help of smugglers, aiming to reach EU countries and apply for asylum. The human traffickers may charge thousands of dollars per person, only to stuff them into trucks and vans so tightly that they often cannot move — or breathe.
The meeting of European leaders ended with outright dissent by the foreign ministers of Serbia and Macedonia, two nations on the path of the new route, who complained that they were not getting enough help.
“Unless we have a European answer to this issue, none of us should be under any illusion that this will be solved,” Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki of Macedonia said.
Hungary’s hard line with the migrants has included the accelerated building of a fence along the border with Serbia in an effort to block the tens of thousands arriving in recent weeks.
Amnesty International alleged that EU indecisiveness was partly to blame for the latest tragedy. “People dying in their dozens — whether crammed into a truck or a ship — en route to seek safety or better lives is a tragic indictment of Europe’s failures to provide alternative routes,” the rights group said a statement.