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Europe’s migrant crisis hits new peak as hundreds die in two disasters

Eight womean and four children, including one infant, were among 71 migrants found dead in this Slovak-registered truck Thursday.Photograph by Dieter Nagl — AFP/Getty Images

About 200 migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia died when their overcrowded boat sank off the Libyan coast while Austrian authorities on Friday raised to 71 the number of refugees found dead in the back of an abandoned freezer truck.

Three people were arrested in Hungary in connection with the vehicle deaths, Austria’s Krone newspaper said, although authorities in Austria and Hungary could not confirm the report.

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.

A security official in the western Libyan town of Zuwara, from where the doomed boat had set off, said there had been around 400 people on board the boat that sank off Libya on Thursday. Many appeared to have been trapped in the hold when it capsized.

By late evening, the Libyan coast guard had rescued around 201, of which 147 were brought to a detention facility for illegal migrants in Sabratha, west of Tripoli.

The migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco and Bangladesh, the security official said.

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

The Libyan coast guard 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.

More than 2,300 people have died this year trying to reach Europe by boat, compared with 3,279 during the whole of last year, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

On land, a wave of refugees and migrants has swept north through the Balkans in recent days, with thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis crossing from Serbia into EU-member Hungary, where authorities said more than 140,000 had been caught entering the country so far this year.

Almost all hope to reach the more affluent countries of northern and western Europe such as Germany and Sweden.

Hungary, which is part of Europe’s ‘Schengen’ passport-free travel zone, is building a high fence along its border with Serbia to confront what it says is a threat to European security, prosperity and identity.


Austrian police had originally put the death toll in the truck found abandoned near the Hungarian border at about 50, but later raised the figure to 71, including eight women and four children (one of them an infant). More detailed information was expected later on Friday.

The refrigerated vehicle was found by an Austrian motorway patrol on Thursday with fluids from the decomposing bodies seeping from its back door.

It had been abandoned on the side of the highway that leads from Hungary to Vienna. By a bitter irony, the discovery happened less than a hundred miles from where E.U. leaders were holding yet another inconclusive meeting on how to deal with the problem.

“Work continued throughout the night, but I expect all the bodies have been removed now,” said Helmut Marban, a police spokesman for the Burgenland province.

“Forensic investigators are still at the truck and trying to establish all the facts.”

The truck is at a customs building in the village of Nickelsdorf, which has refrigeration facilities and where forensic specialists in white protective suits and yellow rubber boots could be seen wheeling body bags away.