Grim findings in Austria push refugee crisis into public view

Hungarian policemen detain a Syrian refugee family after they entered Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Friday.  

They were the lucky ones. Packed into a small white truck, 34 migrants, 10 of them children, had made the hourslong drive from Serbia, begging for air in broiling summer temperatures. According to the police, the three people smuggling this human cargo into Austria refused to stop.

But on Tuesday on the A4 highway that links Vienna and Budapest, the truck reached its destination and pulled over. The migrants hustled out. An Austrian policeman on his way to work spotted the scene, alerted colleagues and followed the truck. As the three smugglers headed back toward Hungary, the Austrian police arrested them before they were across the border.

On Thursday, another truck was opened at the side of the same Austrian highway, but the consequences were far more grim: 71 migrants, including four children, were found dead in the back compartment that had at one time been refrigerated, likely asphyxiated in the summer heat. (Three Bulgarians and an Afghan arrested in Hungary in connection with the deaths made their first appearance in court on Saturday, where they were given one month's detention to allow for an investigation.)

Tragic evidence

The discovery provided the most tragic evidence to date of a crime that the authorities said has been proliferating in Europe since the migrant crisis shifted east: an increase in human trafficking over land routes by smugglers who are cashing in on the human flow from war-torn and strife-ridden places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Africa.

The authorities said that cars, vans and trucks have been crisscrossing national borders, ferrying migrants toward desired destinations, like Germany and other more prosperous European countries in the north, exploiting the migrants’ willingness to hand over hundreds or thousands of euros for taxi rides or longer hauls that often cost 10 or 20 times what they should.

But until the grisly findings in the truck in Austria, the practice had not stirred significant political or popular outrage, law enforcement authorities and others said Friday. And while arrests have been on the rise throughout Europe, they have not kept up with the pipeline of people more than willing to step in and take advantage of the migrants’ plights.

At a news conference Thursday, Austria’s Interior Minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, appeared shaken and angry; she has been arguing for a greater European Union response to smuggling for more than a year. “If someone continues to assert that smugglers are somehow helping people in need — that person really needs help,” she said.

The Austrian authorities have seen traffickers try “everything imaginable” to smuggle people in, said Katerina Kratzmann, head of the Austrian office of the International Organization for Migration — from stuffing people into hidden niches in the front and side of cars to stowing away people in spaces above rolling tires.

Mikl-Leitner’s proposal for a European policy on migration, from July 2014, called for robbing smugglers of their income by setting up centers on the EU borders where refugees could apply for asylum.

“This tragedy affects us all,” she said, and is a signal to Europeans “to do something as soon as possible.” — New York Times News Service

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 4:38:20 AM |

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