UPDATE: Austrian police said in a press conference today that 71 people were found dead in a truck, up from their initial estimate of up to 50. Three suspects have also been arrested in relation to the incident.
As the refugee crisis in Europe continues to worsen, the bodies of up to 50 people who authorities believe to be refugees were found in a truck on the side of the road in Eastern Austria, close to the border with Hungary.
"We cannot say exactly how many there are. We could imagine that maybe 20 people have died, but it could also be 40 or 50…We think that these are refugees," Hans Peter Doskozi, the head of the local police force in Burgenland, Austria, told NBC yesterday. Local news outlets are reporting that they may have suffocated after being trapped in the back of the truck, according to the Independent.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief advisor said the refugees were probably part of a human trafficking operation, the New York Times reports, with the goal of smuggling refugees across Austria into western Europe.
The discovery comes in the lead up to a meeting in Austria of European leaders, being held to discuss the growing numbers of people fleeing from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of Africa to European nations. The BBC reports:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said all those at the summit were "deeply shocked" by the gruesome find, arguing that it showed that Europe urgently needed to work together to solve the crisis.
Asylum seekers have been trying to reach Europe via the central Mediterranean route, which involves a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and which claimed 3,279 lives last year. The International Organization for Migration predicts that the number will be much higher this year, closer to 30,000 deaths.
On Wednesday, another 55 asylum seekers were found dead on ships which became stranded crossing the sea toward Italy. Earlier this month, a boat heading for Italy capsized with 600 refugees on board, killing at least 200 people.
At the summit, Balkans nations like Serbia and Macedonia said Europe as a whole also needs to formulate a strategy to handle asylum seekers trying to reach western Europe via the Balkans.
Hungary has gone as far as to build a razor wire fence on its border with Syria, while Macedonia (officially known as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) briefly created a "crisis zone" on its border with Greece, bringing in armed forces and trapping thousands of asylum seekers in "squalid conditions," according to Amnesty International. In the French border town of Calais, thousands more asylum seekers continue to be camped out in hopes of crossing to England.
German politicians are debating cutting the numbers of refugees they accept into the country. At the same time, there have been increasing attacks on housing projects providing shelter for asylum seekers from neo-Nazi groups and a 58% increase from last year in the number of people applying for asylum.
Earlier this week, photographer Daniel Etter took this photo of a Syrian father, Laith Majid, with his children when they arrived in Greece after the life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean:
The photo was shared thousands of times on Twitter, perhaps because in the midst of the political debates and fence-building, it gives us a simple, human insight into what it means to be seeking asylum.
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