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Europe pushed to act on refugee crisis after Austria, sea tragedies

EU interior and justice ministers set Sept. 14 meeting; European members have traded blame over the current situation

Pressure intensified Sunday for European nations to get to grips with a refugee crisis that in recent days has seen more than a hundred people drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and the discovery of scores of dead migrants in the back of a truck in Austria. Meanwhile people continued to pour into Hungary from Serbia despite a newly completed razor-wire barrier.

Pope Francis urged "effective cooperation" against "crimes that offend all humanity" adding his voice to the growing chorus of those demanding that EU members address the crisis on, and increasingly within, its border. Meanwhile European nations, the leaders of which have struggled to find a coherent policy on the issue, engaged in finger pointing over who should shoulder more of the responsibility. France's foreign minister accused Hungary of having an "extremely harsh" policy to refugees, Germany said other European countries had failed to take in sufficient numbers and Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May blamed EU rules on free movement across member states' borders.

In a bid to forge a more unified stance across the 28-member union, it was agreed Sunday that a special meeting of EU interior and justice ministers would take place on Sept. 14. It is likely that more deaths would have occurred by then. On Sunday, seven more people were added to the tally of those killed trying to make it to mainland Europe after a boat carrying refugees sank off Libya's coast.

The latest diplomatic push for a solution came as Hungarian police announced that a fifth suspected human trafficker had been arrested over Thursday's gruesome discovery of 71 decomposing corpses in an abandoned vehicle on an Austrian motorway. Meanwhile, three children saved from another vehicle left the hospital presumably, authorities said, to join their parents as they attempt to travel on to Germany — a popular destination for refugees.

The truck tragedy, plus yet another shipwreck off the Libyan coast that claimed at least 111 lives, have served as chilling reminders of Europe's failure to cope with the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict at home.

The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have fled warzones and hardship in the Middle East and Africa for a better life in Europe this year alone. Millions more sit in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Some 2,500 have died in the treacherous journey, most drowning in the waters of the Mediterranean after being crammed into unseaworthy boats.

“Europe needs to stop being moved and start moving,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said, calling again for a fairer distribution of refugees among the European Union's 28 members. 

Berlin has called on other EU countries to shoulder more of the burden of refugees fleeing to Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Sunday that those who do need protection should be integrated more quickly “into our life,” while those who don't should be sent home quickly.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that people “fleeing war, persecution, torture, oppression, must be welcomed” and should be treated with “dignity.”

If the migrants manage to reach Greece, large numbers then trek up through the countries of the western Balkans — Macedonia called a state of emergency two weeks ago — and enter EU member Hungary.

Many arrive in Hungary intending to travel onwards to prosperous western Europe, particularly Germany and Sweden. Hungary has responded by completing on Saturday a barrier of three rolls of NATO-standard razor wire along the entire 110-mile border with Serbia, patrolled by border police with dogs and 4x4s. 

The government of Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban is also building a 12-foot-high fence and wants to stiffen penalties for people entering illegally.

The barrier is not proving much use, however, with police saying Sunday that 3,080 people crossed over on Saturday, the second-highest daily total. The barrier is littered with pieces of torn clothing.

On Sunday, a group of around 200 refugees passed through carrying plastic bags, rucksacks and bottles of water. They called out in greeting “salam alaikum” — “peace be with you” in Arabic.

“I want the border. Where can we pass to Europe?” asked one Syrian refugee, Hassan, who has been traveling for a month. “Macedonia and Serbia has good people. In Serbia when we was at camp, I told them, I want my baby to put him into a hotel. … And the police let me to go to hotel.“

The five people now in custody in Hungary over the Austrian truck — which contained the bodies of 59 men, eight women and four children — are believed by police to be low-ranking members of one of the numerous human-trafficking gangs that extract exorbitant amounts of money to transport migrants and refugees.

The dead were thought to be Syrians and police believe they suffocated and had been dead for up to two days before the truck was discovered by motorway maintenance workers due to decomposing body fluids dripping from the vehicle.

On Saturday Austrian police said that three “severely dehydrated” children were rescued from another vehicle on Friday containing 26 Syrians, Bangladeshis and Afghans near the border with Germany.

Police spokesman David Furtner told AFP on Sunday that the three Syrian children from the “really awful” vehicle have since been discharged from hospital and had likely continued their journey with their parents into Germany.

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

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