At first, the police investigating an abandoned poultry delivery truck with Hungarian license plates on an Austrian highway thought the gut-turning stench was from decaying processed chicken. Then, they saw the thick red blood streaming from the truck’s locked doors.
The smell was from dozens of human corpses – at first thought to number 50, though because the bodies were packed so tightly and had started to decompose and meld together, they couldn’t be sure. Because the weather was hot, authorities thought it best to tow the truck to a refrigerated forensic unit to remove the carnage and count the corpses, now, according to Interior Ministry official Alexander Marakovits, the official figure has risen to "more than 70"
What they do know without further investigation is that the dead are almost certainly would-be refugees who suffocated in the back of the truck, which was nothing more than a land version of a rickety fishing boat ferrying the desperate to what they surely hoped was salvation. The dead no doubt paid their human traffickers handsomely in advance, and were no doubt assured they would make it to their dream destination: Europe. The truck’s driver, who is currently the subject of a Europe-wide manhunt, had abandoned the truck as many as two days before it was discovered, but initial forensic reports suggest that the refugees died long before the truck stalled.
A similar incident happened at sea this week, when another 50 migrants hoping for refugee status were found dead in the hull of a ship off the Libyan coast. They suffocated, too, on their way to a better life. All that separates the Austrian chicken truck deaths from those lost at sea are the finite details; What unites them is that they are part of a growing statistic as more and more people die as they try to make it to Europe.
The discovery of the chicken truck corpses came just as European leaders were meeting in Vienna to discuss what to do about the ongoing migrant crisis, one that is soon to surpass the type of exodus Europe last saw during World War II.
"We were all shaken by the horrible news that up to 50 people died,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the Vienna podium as the news broke. “These were people coming to seek safety. It is our responsibility to help them.”
But Europe is failing to do just that. So far this year, nearly 300,000 people have made the desperate journey from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea to Europe. In July alone, 107,500 people made it to Europe. Most have come in through Greece and Italy, where even the most dire details of the migrant crisis have become such commonplace they are no longer shocking.
Almost 2,400 people are known to have have perished along the way so far this year – not including the 100 who died this week – and no one will ever know how many died that haven’t been counted. In Libya, bodies wash up on the shore daily while Italian and Maltese fishermen so regularly catch skulls and skeletal remains in their fishing nets they now just throw them back to sea.
Until the chicken truck driver is found, few details will likely be confirmed about just who the dead were. Given their trajectory into Europe, it is most likely they came through Greece, which almost assuredly makes them Syrian or Iraqi, populations who have come in increasing numbers in recent weeks.
Last week, thousands of refugees were bottlenecked at the Greek-Macedonian border until Macedonia opened its gates and let them through, but not before violent confrontations including spraying the desperate refugees with tear gas. It was not exactly the welcome to Europe the refugees were expecting.
Now that the border is open, as many as 3,000 people a day are believed to be traversing Macedonia, then passing through Serbia and on to Hungary, which is the first land border of Europe.
"They are coming in large groups of 300 to 400 people and then traveling onwards by train or bus to Serbia,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson Melissa Fleming said at a news briefing this week. “We do not see any end to the flow of people to come in the coming months, where there's good weather and people can continue to cross the Mediterranean."
Under heavy criticism from much of the rest of Europe, authorities in Hungary are quickly working to build thick barbed fences to block the flow, but not fast enough to stop the influx. Even with 110 kilometers of the 175-kilometer fence now in place, refugees are still moving through the remaining gap in record numbers. According to UNHCR, the refugees are in a battle against the clock, trying to get through “before the fences are up.”
By most estimates, more than one million refugees will make it to Europe by the end of 2015 at the current rate. Efforts to stop the exodus in the countries from which they are leaving are all but impossible – there are simply no viable means to build an infrastructure that supports asylum seekers in Syria or Libya. And while Europe as a divided union continues to struggle with policy and protocol, the refugees keep trying even more desperate means to find a better life, dying under ever-more tragic circumstances along the way.