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Refugees found dead in parked truck in Austria, police say

Vehicle contained more than 70 bodies, officials say, on a ‘dark day’ in Europe's escalating migrant crisis

More 70 refugees were found dead in a parked truck in eastern Austria on Thursday, police said Friday in a revision of the toll that marked what one Austrian official called a “dark day” in Europe’s escalating refugee crisis.

The vehicle, which had Hungarian license plates but bears Slovak text on the sides and back, was found on a parking strip off the highway in Burgenland state. The state of the bodies in the hot summer day made establishing the identities and even exact number of dead refugees difficult, but on Thurday police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil said the total number could rise to 50. 

“We cannot at this point make any concrete conclusions about how their death occurred,” Doskozil said, at a press conference with Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. By Friday morning ministry officials said the toll had increased substantially. 

The truck's back door was left open. The state of the bodies suggested the refugees could have been dead for several days. Police declined to give further information on the victims' possible identities, whether children were among them, how they may have died or other details, saying that investigations could last days. 

“This tragedy affects us all deeply,” Mikl-Leitner added on Thursday, calling it a “dark day.”

The gruesome discovery comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Balkan leaders are meeting in Vienna to discuss how to tackle the biggest migration crisis to hit Europe since World War II. This year has seen record numbers of people trying to reach the European Union by sea and land as they flee conflict in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Ahead of the conference, Austria's Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz warned that his country would consider introducing tougher anti-migration measures, including “much tighter border controls,” if the European Union fails to come up with a unified response.

“Austria has more migrants than Italy and Greece combined... so we shouldn't pretend that only Italy and Greece are affected,” Kunz said in an interview with public broadcaster ORF.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said Thursday's deadly tragedy showed how critical it was for nations to work together on solutions to the refugee crisis.

"Today refugees lost the lives they had tried to save by escaping, but lost them in the hand of traffickers," he told reporters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “shaken by the awful news that up to 50 people lost their lives on their way to look for more security.”

“This reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity,” she said.

Tens of thousands of refugees from crisis areas in the Middle East and Africa have been trying to make their way to Europe. This year, a record number of 340,000 people have crossed European borders, most fleeing conflict in Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. More than 2,370 people have died crossing the Mediterranean. Others have died while jumping on trains crossing the Eurotunnel to reach the United Kingdom.

The United Nations has raised alarm over the crisis and called on the EU to devise a comprehensive migration policy to absorb the large numbers of people.

But opposition to such policies is growing in the face of growing anti-immigrant sentiment. In Germany, where a record number of 800,000 refugees are projected to seek asylum this year, Merkel on Wednesday denounced a series of arson attacks against detention centers and assaults against refugees in recent weeks.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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