Christina Lamb, courtesy of The Sunday Times & The Australian, 1 September 2015, where the title is “Europe’s asylum-seekers form a human tide of desperation
It took perhaps an hour for them to die. The children would have suffocated first: the baby girl of around 18 months, the three boys aged about eight to 10, watched by their anguished mothers, helpless to give them air inside the hot, sealed truck. By the time it crossed the border from Hungary into western Europe where the asylum-seekers must have hoped for a new life, all 71 were dead: 59 men, eight women, four children. The Austrian police who found them said their bodies were piled one on top of the other inside the vehicle as if they had tried to climb up. With four bodies for every square metre, they had been so desperate to get air that the side of the truck was bent out of shape.
“It was terrible. It looked as if the victims had tried to push against the wall to get out as they ran out of air,” says Gerard Pangl, spokesman for the local Burgenland police. “It was their last fight.” They had left Budapest on the Wednesday. When highway police found the abandoned truck on Thursday morning at the side of the main road to Vienna, the smell of death was overpowering and fetid liquid was dripping from the vehicle. The bodies were so badly decomposed that police could not count them at first. Who they were is not yet known. Forensic experts in protective suits found only one document — a Syrian passport — and a few SIM cards for mobile phones. It is thought all were Syrians.
A journey that had started with hope, fleeing war at home to what they believed would be safety in Europe, came to an unimaginably horrible end on the road in a truck that used to belong to a Slovakian meat processing company. The truck was bought by a Hungarian last year and had a cheerful chicken on the back with the slogan: “I taste good because I am fed well.”
The truck was abandoned near the farming village of Parndorf, just over the border from Hungary. When highway police found it the driver was long gone. As the truck was towed away, scores of corpses began washing up on Libyan shores 3200km away. Two overcrowded boats packed with migrants heading for Italy had capsized. By Saturday more than 100 bodies had been found and the UNHCR refugee agency said another 100 people were unaccounted for. Some had been trapped in the hulls.
Both incidents came as senior European officials gathered in Vienna to discuss the biggest wave of asylum-seekers pouring into Europe since World War II, most fleeing conflict in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, particularly Syria and Afghanistan. Many are heading for Germany, which will take 800,000 this year and has not looked kindly on Britain’s refusal to take more. But in a week when it emerged that Britain has eight million foreign-born people and that migration to the country has reached an all-time high, British government ministers believe the system is already straining at the seams.
Last week’s tragedies focused renewed attention on the traffickers exploiting desperate people who are willing to spend all that they have and risk travelling in crowded vehicles or vessels for the chance of a new life.
“They’re easy prey for people-smugglers and too many are finding themselves in great peril,” says Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for UNHCR. “Europe needs better answers. There have to be safe, legal alternatives so that people don’t have to take these risks.”
The latest drownings bring to more than 2500 the numbers killed trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year. If Europe has become somehow inured to the drownings, death by asphyxiation on a road in the heart of the continent is a whole new horror. It also reflects a change in asylum-seeker geography. Last year most arriving in Europe came via Libya and landed in Italy or Malta, from where they travelled through relatively safe and open borders to the rest of the EU.
This year those numbers have risen to new records — more than 300,000 so far, compared with 217,000 who arrived by sea in the whole of last year. But with Libya plunged into a deadly civil war, more asylum-seekers are travelling from Turkey into financially stricken Greece, which has little to offer and is separated from the rest of the EU by the Balkans.
This forces refugees to make another perilous journey over land through Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, often using criminal gangs to reach nations such as Germany and Sweden, which provide generous benefits.
One of those taking such risks last week was Lama Jomaa, 30, a kindergarten teacher from Damascus. Last Thursday, as the decomposing bodies were discovered by the Austrian highway patrol, she and her husband Ahmed, a lawyer, were among 20 Syrian refugees in a truck travelling from Belgrade to Vienna, for which they each paid $2400. “It was so crowded we couldn’t breathe,” she says. “We were praying, I could see my life passing in front of me, and I kept thinking of my family back in Syria and how they would feel if something happened. It was very, very scary.”
When they got to Austria the driver dumped the asylum-seekers by the side of the road instead of taking them to Vienna as promised. They were immediately picked up by police who took them to a makeshift camp.
Only then did a school friend who was also travelling in the truck tell her about the deaths of the Syrians in the food truck. “I thought it could have been us,” Jomaa says. “I won’t go on one again.”
The last stop for the 71 Syrians before their fatal journey is thought to have been Keleti station in Budapest.
In the shadow of the grand facade, with its giant clock and statues of the railway pioneers James Watt and George Stephenson, another camp has sprung up on the concrete concourse. About 700 were camped there in the open air last week. Many had been robbed in the forests of Serbia. Others had been beaten by Macedonian guards who turned on migrants crossing the Greek border. Others still bore scratches from crawling through a fence being completed by Hungary along its 170km border with Serbia. They are not alone. The Bulgarians are also building a fence, as are the British and French in Calais, leading many to question whether an open Europe makes sense any more.
The authorities in Hungary are overwhelmed. About 130,000 asylum-seekers have poured in so far this year, compared with 43,000 last year, and the numbers are rising daily. There were 3241 on Wednesday, the highest in a single day. Seven thousand children have been found unaccompanied. A six-year-old Afghan boy who had been orphaned in a shipwreck was discovered last week trying to make his way to Germany.Amid the chaos, many families are becoming separated. Three families from Kabul arrived on Wednesday on a night train from the border. With them was a middle-aged woman who had lost her 19-year-old daughter at a police registration centre and was struggling to help her exhausted 65-year-old mother.
Parivash Javadi, 38, says they fled Afghanistan after she and a woman in one of the other families had been threatened by local men because they had been working as reporters at a radio station. “They couldn’t tolerate me working as a woman,” she says. The family had sold everything to fund the trip. She, like others, says the journey got progressively worse after Greece. All complain about their treatment in Hungary, saying those caught by the police were kept in cages with no water or food. “I was crying,” says Javadi. “They wouldn’t give us water or let us go to the toilet. I never expected humans would be treated like animals in Europe.”
Such people are easy prey to smugglers, says Tomasz Lederer, a university professor who runs a network of volunteers: “The migrants are desperate and put their money on any chance to reach their destination.”
The average charge for the 245km from Budapest to Vienna is about $800 a person, Lederer says. Despite his warnings, many risk it. “I know some migrants who paid a driver to travel in the back compartment of a truck and after five minutes realised there was no air. They banged and banged, and fortunately the driver stopped so they could leave.”
Not surprisingly, many asylum-seekers have become disillusioned about the Europe they had seen as the promised land. Austria is the latest country to find itself at the centre of the crisis. As the first western European nation to be reached, it is also the first place where would-be refugees try to stay. About 80,000 people are expected to seek asylum there this year — up from 28,000 last year. Many end up at a border “collection point” in Nickelsdorf. At night it is cold, with only a corrugated roof high above as protection. Women say there is nowhere secluded for them to wash.
Haytham Kansur, 45, shows me his membership card from the Syrian Bar Association and photographs on his iPhone of himself in a crisp white shirt. “Look at me in Damascus and look at me now,” he says in fluent English. “I lost myself coming here. Now I look like an animal. Europe is a big lie. We thought we were coming to civilised people, to a paradise, but instead we found this.”
In one of his photographs his son rides a pony; in another his daughter is dressed as a princess. “I spent all my money, my wife’s money, my children’s money coming here — $10,000 ($14,000),” he says. “I wanted to go to Holland and then send for them. But now I think it’s better in Syria, even in the war, for we are treated as humans.” Although Kansur had stayed in hotels and used taxis, much of his group’s journey has been using people-smugglers: “They are like vampires sucking our blood.”
Smugglers are not hard to find if you are in the market. They advertise on social media or send agents to the camps. Most refugees pay in stages as they go, but some come the entire way on an all-inclusive service. In Keleti station, Lederer has met people who have paid $17,000 to go from Afghanistan to Germany, including two weeks in a flat in Berlin.
Austrian police believe there are mafia gangs employing people as drivers. But many truck drivers provide an ad hoc service to earn some cash. When police stopped a Volkswagen van last month they found 24 men, 12 women and 18 children crammed into an airless space measuring 8sq m. Two had lost consciousness and their companions had ripped a rubber seal from the door so they could breathe.
“This is worse than any cattle transport,” a judge, Helmut Neumar, told Der Standard newspaper after sentencing the driver to three years in jail on Friday.
As for the deaths of the 71 people in the chicken truck, a police source said on Saturday that the investigation spanned nearly all the EU countries. Four suspects — three Bulgarians and one Afghan — have been questioned by a court in Hungary and are expected to be extradited to Austria. Manslaughter charges have been filed against them by Austrian prosecutors. They face up to 10 years in prison.
The Sunday Times