A cramped truck was found abandoned along the main Austrian highway from Budapest to Vienna containing the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants, according to Austrian officials.
Four people suspected of human smuggling have been arrested by Hungarian authorities in connection with the case, USA Today reports.
Citing Burgenland Police director Hans Peter Doskozil, NBC News notes that “The victims were 59 men, eight women and four children — including a girl who was no older than two years of age.”
Initially, investigators believed up to 50 refugees had perished inside the refrigerated vehicle, which had been parked on the shoulder of the busy highway connecting eastern Europe to France and Germany.
“The grim discovery was made Thursday about 10 miles from Austria’s border with Slovakia and Hungary — where thousands of migrants have recently arrived from Syria, Afghanistan and parts of Africa to seek new lives in the West,” reports NBC News.
Among the four people who were arrested are three Bulgarians, including one of Lebanese descent believed to be the driver, and an Afghan with a Hungarian identity card, the Hungarian news agency MTI learned from Budapest State Police.
The truck appeared to have been abandoned for at least 24 hours, points out USA Today, adding, “Forensics experts needed a full day to determine the death toll after the truck was found Thursday.”
“Officials said a Syrian travel document was found in the vehicle and that the occupants likely suffocated,” notes NBC News.
Liquids from the decomposing bodies were leaking from the truck, according to workers cutting grass on the side of the road.
The incident was described as an “unbelievable tragedy” by Austrian prosecutor Johann Fuchs.
It was “very difficult to get back to work,” he added after witnessing investigators removing the bodies from the scene.
“We must assume now that these are refugees,” local police chief Hans Peter Doskozil told reporters. “It is possible this is a Syrian refugee group.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “shaken” by the incident as she met with other European leaders in Vienna to discuss how to address the migrant crisis that has become a pressing concern for the European Union.
“The world’s eyes are upon us,” Merkel declared during a news conference Thursday. “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 World War II.”
“I am horrified and heartbroken at the latest loss of lives of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean and Europe,” added United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement. “These repeated tragedies underscore the ruthlessness of people smugglers and traffickers.”
According to the International Organization for Migration, 2,600-plus people have died this year in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe from North Africa.
“Over 332,000 people have crossed in 2015, often in vessels that are not seaworthy and in squalid conditions,” notes USA Today. “In 2014, 219,000 migrants made the journey across that body of water.”