The bodies of at least 20 migrants – and possibly as many as 40 or 50 – have been found inside a parked lorry in eastern Austria, police said on Thursday, in a grim indication of the growing human toll of Europe’s worst refugee emergency since 1945.
The badly decomposed remains were discovered on Thursday morning on Austria’s A4 motorway between Neusiedl and Parndorf. The truck had been abandoned on the hard shoulder of the road near Parndorf. It had apparently been there since Wednesday. The refugees, who appeared to have suffocated, died before they entered Austria, police said.
Hans Peter Doskozil, head of police in the district of Burgenland, said there were at least 20 dead but that the death toll could rise to 40 or 50. The state of the bodies made establishing an exact figure difficult. The identities were also not known, he said.
“The deaths already occurred some time ago,” he added. “We can make no concrete assumptions about the origin or cause [of death]. We can assume, however, that they are refugees.”
The deaths overshadowed a meeting in Vienna of leaders from the EU and the western Balkans to discuss the European migration crisis. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was “shaken by the awful news”. “This reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity,” she said.
Merkel added: “This is a warning for us to tackle the issue of migration quickly. We have more refugees in the world than at any time since the second world war. The world’s eyes are upon us.”
According to road officials on Thursday, an employee mowing the grass alerted police after noticing putrid liquid dripping from the back of the white refrigerated vehicle. Its door had been left ajar. Detectives then made the grim discovery. A manhunt for the driver is under way. Police admitted the perpetrator or perpetrators might have left the country.
Forensic teams at the scene examined the lorry, which has Hungarian number plates. Channel 4 News’ Lindsey Hilsum tweeted that the “smell of death” at the scene was overwhelming. On Thursday afternoon police towed the vehicle to a nearby hall, and began the task of removing bodies.
The 7.5-tonne vehicle used to belong to the Slovak chicken meat company Hyza and still has the slogan “Honest chicken” on the side. The company said it sold the lorry in 2014. According to the Hungarian government, it is registered to a Romanian citizen from the central city of Kecskemét.
In a statement Austria’s interior minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, denounced the traffickers as criminals and said: “Today is a dark day.” She said Austria would adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards the mafia gangs responsible.