EISENSTADT, Austria (Reuters) - Four children, including a baby girl, were among 71 migrants found dead in a truck on an Austrian highway and several people have been arrested in Hungary in connection with the tragedy, Austrian police said on Friday.
An Austrian motorway patrol discovered the abandoned truck near the Hungarian border on Thursday, probably at least 24 hours after it had been parked there. The refugees appeared to have been dead for up to two days and fluids from the decomposing bodies were seeping from its door.
A Syrian travel document was found among the victims but more time is needed to determine whether people of other nationalities were on board, Hans Peter Doskozil, police chief for the province of Burgenland, told a news conference.
He later told broadcaster ORF that authorities had found several mobile phones among the corpses, and were hoping these could help identify the victims.
The back door of the truck was not locked but secured shut with wires. Its refrigeration system showed no signs of having been switched on and there were no vents to allow fresh air inside, Doskozil told Reuters. The victims had been wearing light summer clothes.
The deaths highlighted the dangers faced by migrants at the hands of traffickers on arrival in Europe, even if they survive perilous voyages across the Mediterranean, where more than 2,600 have drowned already this year.
Of the 71 dead, 59 were men, eight were women, and four were children, including a girl estimated at 1-2 years old and three boys aged roughly 8-10.
Austrian and Hungarian police differed over the number of arrests made in the case.
Doskozil said three people had been taken into custody in Hungary, including one man who is believed to be the owner of the truck and is of Bulgarian-Lebanese origin. The other two are believed to have driven the vehicle. One was described as Bulgarian and the other had a Hungarian identity card.
Hungarian police said they had arrested four men, including three Bulgarians and an Afghan citizen, and had questioned roughly 20 people after conducting house searches.
“We expect that this is the trace that will lead us to the perpetrators,” Doskozil said, making clear that the people being held were not the ring leaders of the trafficking gang.
Authorities were transporting the bodies to different Austrian morgues. A Reuters witness saw one truck carrying around 10 bodies entering a Vienna forensics center.
The truck in which the bodies were found belongs to a company called Mastermobiliker Ltd, which has been under bankruptcy proceedings since July 2014, according to a Hungarian company register.
The truck bore the logo of what appeared to be a Slovak company, Hyza. Its parent group, Agrofert, told Reuters the vehicle was sold to Mastermobiliker in January this year.
About 100,000 migrants, many of them from Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East, have taken the Balkan route into Europe this year, heading via Serbia for Hungary and Europe’s Schengen zone of passport-free travel. Most then move on to richer countries such as Austria and Germany.
Austria saw asylum requests rise to more than 28,000 in the first six months of 2015 - more than the total for all of 2014.
Doskozil said plans by Hungary to build a 175 km fence to keep out refugees may be contributing to the problem.
“Many people are trying to get to Germany or Austria before it (the fence) is finished,” Doskozil said.
Austria’s Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said on Friday the best way to handle the refugee crisis was to create legal pathways into Europe rather than stricter border controls.
The 28 member states of the European Union have not yet agreed on introducing binding quotas for the distribution of refugees. EU leaders declared this week the bloc had “failed” in the face of human agony on its frontiers.
Austria has for months called for such quotas to share out refugees more fairly across the continent.
“I’ve had enough of these crocodile tears in the European Parliament and then nothing happens,” said Ulrike Lunacek, vice president of the parliament and an Austrian lawmaker.
Additional reporting by Angelika Gruber, Shadia Nasralla in Vienna and Marton Dunai and Krisztina Than in Budapest; Editing by Gareth Jones