Marko Djurica / Reuters

Europe asylum summit overshadowed as refugee bodies found in nearby truck

Summit host Austria floats UN safe-haven plan as overwhelmed EU members brace for even more refugees fleeing conflicts

Even as Austria opened a summit Thursday on asylum seekers crossing into the European Union en masse through western Balkan nations — and as bloc delegates pressed the need to establish a coherent policy to stem the tragedies that befall many along perilous migration routes — up to 50 dead refugees were discovered in a truck along a highway just a few miles from the capital, Vienna.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann had just finished telling other European leaders that there was an urgent need to punish human traffickers when the news came that the decomposing bodies of at least 20 — and possibly up to 50 — people were found stacked in a truck parked on the shoulder of the main highway from Budapest to Vienna.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who also attended the conference, 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." 

Faymann said the tragedy shows the need for a quick solution to what the United Nations has called the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Most people entering Europe are fleeing conflict zones in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, according to the European border patrol agency, Frontex.

"Never before in history have so many people fled their homes to escape war, violence and persecution," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "And given the large number of unresolved conflicts in our neighborhood, the stream of refugees seeking protection in Europe will not abate in the foreseeable future."

The gruesome discovery of the truck brings the total of refugee deaths to more than 2,390 this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, compared to 2,081 on the same date in 2014. Many die aboard boats or rubber dinghies on the Mediterranean Sea, or while jumping onto trains as they try to reach the United Kingdom from France’s port city of Calais, where about 3,000 people live in squalid camps near the Eurotunnel entrance.

Smugglers charge asylum seekers thousands of dollars for the trip. Boats are often overloaded as they approach the Italian, Spanish or Greek coasts, where authorities scramble to provide assistance. Lacking sufficient resources to deal with the influx, southern European countries have repeatedly asked for help providing shelter and medical care, and processing asylum applications.

Non-EU countries such as Serbia and Macedonia — where up to 3,000 people are estimated to request asylum per day this year — have pressed officials at the conference to allocate more funds to help them deal with the crisis. Macedonia last week declared a state of emergency and closed its border with Greece for three days, saying it was unable to cope with the number of people entering the country. The Balkans route — from Turkey to Greece by sea, north to Macedonia by bus or foot, by train through Serbia and then walking the last few miles into EU member Hungary — avoids the more dangerous Mediterranean Sea route from North Africa to Italy, where the bodies of 51 others were found Wednesday in the hull of a smugglers' boat off Libya.

When they arrive in Europe, traffickers often extract more money from them by arranging transport to Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and the UK.

Under EU law, refugees need to request asylum in the first EU country they enter — but many prefer to travel to the richer northern EU countries, where they seek to join relatives and find jobs.

So far only Germany has announced that it will step up efforts to resettle refugees. About 800,000 are projected to request asylum there this year. Other Western European nations have been more reluctant to welcome newcomers, focusing instead on tightening borders by building fences, enhancing surveillance and using tear gas at key entry points

Various proposals have emerged in recent years to distribute the resettlement burden more fairly among member countries, but no collective solution has been reached. At the Vienna summit, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz floated elements of a five-point plan to establish safe havens — possibly protected by U.N.-mandated troops — in people’s home countries, where those seeking asylum in the EU could be processed and given safer passage.

The Austrian plan, to be submitted to EU decision-makers, foresees increased controls on Europe's outer borders and coordinated action against smugglers. It also calls for refugee quotas for each of the EU's 28 members — something many countries have opposed. Domestic constituencies across Europe have campaigned heavily on keeping refugees and migrants out, tuning in to anti-immigrant sentiment and fears that new arrivals take up jobs.

But EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn suggested that resistance to quotas is wearing down.

"We're going to have a quota settlement approach, and in light of recent developments, I believe all 28 member states are now ready to accept and approve that," Hahn told reporters.

"There are 20 million refugees waiting at the doorstep of Europe," he said. "Ten to 12 million in Syria, 5 million Palestinians, 2 million Ukrainians and about 1 million in the southern Caucasus."

Rights group Amnesty International alleged that EU indecisiveness was partly to blame for the latest tragedy.

"People dying in their dozens — whether crammed into a truck or a ship — en route to seek safety or better lives is a tragic indictment of Europe's failures to provide alternative routes," Amnesty said in a news release. "Europe has to step up and provide protection to more, share responsibility better and show solidarity to other countries and to those most in need."

Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz said there was no choice but to find "a European solution to this crisis." If not, he said, individual European countries would act on their own and "endanger our European idea of open borders."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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