A coffin is rolled onto a truck at a customs building with refrigeration facilities in the village of Nickelsdorf, Austria, August 28, 2015. A truck full of refugees discovered abandoned on an Austrian motorway on Thursday contains more than 70 bodies, the interior ministry said on Friday, announcing an updated death toll. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader
A coffin is removed on Friday by Austrian officials after the grim find aboard a lorry abandoned near the Hungarian border

Pressure grew on European politicians to tackle a dire migrant crisis on Friday as the number of decomposing bodies found in a lorry abandoned in Austria rose to 71 — including four children.

Hungarian police said they had arrested four people at the start of a criminal investigation.

As forensic teams worked to identify the victims, who are thought to have suffocated, officials hundreds of miles away announced on Friday that 250 migrants were presumed to have drowned when their boats capsized off the coast of Libya en route to Europe.

The two tragedies unfolded as European heads of government were discussing migration at an annual summit on the Balkans in Vienna — only 50km from where the truck was found near the Hungarian border.

They crystallised a grim summer that has featured hundreds of drownings in the Mediterranean, a Balkan trail of migrants, arson attacks on asylum centres in Germany, and politicians trapped between a worsening crisis and a populist backlash against immigration.

“This should be a wake-up call — a warning that we need to have a European solution quickly,” Johanna Mikl-Leitner, Austrian interior minister, said on Friday, referring to the continent’s biggest influx of refugees since the end of the second world war.

Amid all the misery of recent months, the deaths in Austria managed to stand out. The victims are believed to have suffocated in the back of a refrigerated lorry emblazoned with the logo of a Slovakian chicken company.

Officers struggled to count them because bodies were decomposing. Among the dead was a girl the authorities believed to be aged one or two years old.

Three Bulgarians and an Afghan national were arrested in Hungary as an international criminal investigation got under way. “These are sinister, criminal acts, carried out by smugglers with no scruples whatsoever,” said Frans Timmermans, first vice-president at the European Commission.

The Austrian victims are believed to have entered Europe on the so-called “Western Balkans route”, which many had viewed as a safer option than the risky sea crossing from Libya to Italy.

More than 140,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by travelling overland through the Balkans and into Hungary, despite a razor-wire fence erected by the Budapest authorities to thwart their journey.

This flow of people has shown little sign of abating, with the EU’s border agency Frontex reporting that Greece received almost 50,000 people in July alone — roughly the same number the country handled in all of 2014.

Refugee groups in Greece have described the problems there as “total chaos”, while Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, said the country faced “a crisis within a crisis”. In total, 107,000 people entered the EU illegally during July, according to Frontex.

Speaking at the Vienna summit this week, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, took the opportunity to crank up pressure on other EU national governments, many of whom have so far ignored Berlin’s calls to share out asylum seekers more evenly. “The world is looking at us and we must show that we will be able to solve this,” she said.

Germany is set to receive 800,000 asylum applications this year — more than the entire EU took in 2014 — and has demanded that other EU states take their fair share.

But many countries have expressed scepticism about a proposal from the European Commission, which would see asylum seekers shared out based on factors such as gross domestic product and population size.

“These fair quotas will be demanded,” Ms Merkel said on Thursday. “We will see who accepts and who refuses.”

Although Germany has powerful allies on its side, such as France, Italy and the commission, the introduction of a permanent mechanism to share out asylum seekers more equally is far from guaranteed.

When European leaders last gathered to discuss these proposals in June, it resulted in a long tense meeting that ended in acrimony, with Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, declaring: “If this is Europe, you can keep it.”

Leaders later agreed to a watered-down scheme, which will see 32,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in Greece and Italy being shared among other member states, but on a voluntary basis.

Governments have, in general, shown more enthusiasm for ad hoc and uncoordinated security measures to stem the flow of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hungary has erected a 175km border fence, Bulgaria has deployed the army at its southern flank, while Poland and Slovakia initially signalled they would accept only Christian refugees.

Get alerts on EU immigration when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article