THE risks taken by migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe have once again been laid bare, following the deaths of more than 300 people in separate incidents off the coast of Libya and on an Austrian motorway running from Hungary to the capital, Vienna.
Austrian police said originally that around 20 partly-decomposed bodies were thought to be in an abandoned refrigerated lorry, which was found by a road-worker on Thursday morning. A few hours later, the police said that the figure had risen to around 50; and on Friday morning said that 71 people had died on the lorry. These included 59 men, eight women and four children; the youngest being a girl whose age has been estimated as one or two years old.
The identities and origins of the people on board is not known; but forensics officers found one Syrian travel document. Police think that the people were originally from Syria, and had been trafficked.
Hungarian police announced at lunchtime on Friday that the lorry’s driver, a Bulgarian citizen of Lebanese origin, had been arrested in connection with the migrants' fate, alongside two other Bulgarians and an Afghan man.
The lorry was taken to a secure compound, where the bodies were to be removed for further examination.
Hundreds more people died this week in two separate incidents off the coast of Libya, taking the death toll of people who have attempted to make the crossing so far in 2015 to 2500. Last year, an estimated 500 people were killed trying to cross to Europe, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said.
The UNHCR also said that the number of people attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year had now passed 300,000 – considerably more than the 219,000 people who attempted to make the crossing in the whole of 2014.
The Libyan coastguard found around 40 bodies inside a half-sunk fishing boat around a kilometre from the port of Zuwara; while up to 200 bodies were found in the sea. The boat is thought to have had 400 migrants on board when it set off. The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières said that 201 survivors were rescued.
On Wednesday, Swedish coastguard officials found 52 bodies below deck on a wooden boat off the coast of Libya. A further 450 people on board were rescued.
On Friday morning, Surrey police arrested 27 people suspected of being illegal immigrants after they were found in the back of a lorry at a motorway service station on the M25. The lorry driver was also arrested.
Austria is the last country that refugees from Syria will pass through on their way to Germany in a journey that begins with a boat trip from Syria or Turkey to Greece before progressing through Eastern Europe. Most will continue their journey to Berlin, but others will stop in many of the transit countries.
“We have a great influx of migrants. Many of them are staying here [in Austria] as well,” the Ven Patrick Curran, Archdeacon of the Eastern archdeaconry of the Diocese in Europe said on Friday afternoon. “It is a crisis and lots of people are reacting to it in different ways.
“The Churches are doing a lot here in Austria. You could say that they are the conscience of the nation, because they are very involved.”
Bishop Michael Bünker, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austria, said that the people in in the lorry may have died “in our midst” as thousands of people drove past them.
He said that it was time for people to face the urgent reality that refugees and asylum-seekers were “not only in the distant lands of Lampedusa or Kos, but among us”, he said.
Bishop Bünker called for a legal route of access for asylum seekers to Europe, saying that “the lack of a European common approach has fatal consequences for people seeking protection.”
Without this, people-smugglers would continue to profit, and refugees would continue to be in “mortal danger” as they attempt to reach the sanctuary of Europe.
The aid and migration officer for the Roman Catholic agency, Caritas Europa, Marie Tempesta, said that the latest deaths of migrants were a "catastrophe". She reiterated Pope Francis's plea that the Mediterranean could not become a "vast cemetery".
The majority of asylum-seekers reaching Europe attempt to make their way to Germany. Figures from the Home Office and Eurostat published in The Guardian this week showed that 25,571 applications for asylum were made in the UK in the year to June 2015; compared to 296,710 in Germany.
German officials have said that they expect to receive 800,000 applications for asylum this year.
Current EU law allows countries to return asylum-seekers to the first country of European entry. The EU Commission and the European Parliament want to change this to introduce a system of quotas so that the burden of caring for refugees can be shared across the EU. But the proposals have stalled at the European Council as some countries – including the UK – oppose the move.