As many as 50 refugees were found dead in a parked lorry in eastern Austria near the Hungarian border on Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the discovery had shaken European leaders attending a Balkans summit.
Police made the grisly discovery in the 7.5-ton truck stopped on the A4 motorway near the town of Parndorf, apparently parked there since Wednesday, Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief in the province of Burgenland, said at a news conference.
He said he could not put an exact figure on the number of victims, whose bodies had begun to decompose.
“We can assume that it could be 20 people who died. It could also be 40, it could be 50 people,” he said.
“We are of course all shaken by the appalling news,” Merkel told a news conference at the summit on the West Balkans in Vienna. “This reminds us that we must tackle quickly the issue of immigration and in a European spirit – that means in a spirit of solidarity – and to find solutions.”
Tens of thousands of people, mainly from countries in Africa and the Middle East, have put to sea this year in the hope of reaching Europe, often dangerously packed into small boats that were never designed to cross the Mediterranean.
Those who make it ashore and others travelling by land have increasingly tried to make their way north via the Balkans, causing tension among countries along the route.
Hungary plans to reinforce its southern border with helicopters, mounted police and dogs, and is also considering using the army as record numbers of migrants passed through coils of razor-wire into Europe.
Investigations were underway in Austria and Hungary after the bodies were discovered. The truck had Hungarian number plates, a Hungarian official said.
Austrian Interior Minister Johann Mikl-Leitner called it “a dark day” and underscored Vienna’s demand that the European Union adopt a way to distribute a wave of refugees fairly so that they would not have to turn to human traffickers.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose country expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year, said a fair distribution of refugees was needed to ensure support in countries taking in the bulk of migrants.