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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
# refugee crisis
Seven people detained after 18 found dead in abandoned truck in Bulgaria
Some survivors are being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after having inhaled exhaust pipe gases.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 18th 2023, 12:05 PM

BULGARIAN POLICE HAVE arrested seven people, an official said today, a day after the bodies of 18 Afghans were found in an abandoned truck outside the capital Sofia.

Bulgaria’s deadliest recorded people smuggling incident comes as it struggles with an increase in illicit border crossings.

The truck was transporting 52 people hidden under wooden planks, and 18 died from suffocation, initial investigations showed.

Investigators discovered a gruesome scene with bodies scattered on the grass around the vehicle.

The group of Afghans was coming from Turkey and headed for western Europe.

Four Bulgarians have already been detained as suspects, and three fresh arrests were announced today.

“I can confirm seven people have been arrested,” an interior ministry official told AFP.

Another government official said the suspected ringleader was among those arrested. He had earlier received a suspended jail sentence of five months for people smuggling.

The government has proposed tightening laws on people smuggling as the majority of smugglers are just fined or get suspended prison sentences.

The 34 people who were rescued on yesterday were taken to hospital.

Some of them are being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after having inhaled exhaust pipe gases as their hiding place was not well insulated, according to Spas Spaskov, a senior doctor at the Emergency Hospital Pirogov in Sofia.

“The oxygen they were getting was very limited, and they had no water, that’s why they are severely dehydrated. They did not eat for several days,” he told the Nova private TV channel.

Health Minister Asen Medjidiev told journalists earlier that the migrants were “cold and drenched, and they certainly had not eaten for a few days,” 

The health ministry said the dead included a child thought to be six or seven years old, but Sarafov said the youngest victim was a teenager.

Rising influx

The country has stepped up controls along the 234-kilometre barbed wire fence covering almost the entire border with Turkey.

Border police thwarted 164,000 “irregular crossing” attempts in 2022, compared to 55,000 in 2021, interior ministry figures show.

Austria and the Netherlands in December blocked Sofia’s bid to join the Schengen border-free zone.

Bulgaria has faced mounting accusations it is abusing people trying to cross over from Turkey, with asylum seekers saying they have been pushed back, locked up, stripped and beaten.

Bulgarian authorities have repeatedly denied the accusations.

Three police officers died when vehicles smuggling people rammed their cars last year.

Sofia has asked the EU for €2 billion to reinforce the border fence and improve surveillance, but Brussels has so far refused.

Today’s gruesome discovery drew comparisons to previous cases.

In August 2015, at the peak of Europe’s migration crisis, the bodies of 71 migrants, including a baby girl, were found piled up in the back of a poultry refrigerator lorry left in Austria.

A Hungarian court has jailed an Afghan national and three Bulgarians for life over the case.

In 2019, 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in a refrigerated truck in Britain shortly after it had crossed the Channel from mainland Europe.

Several similar but less deadly incidents have been recorded in recent years, including in Northern Ireland, Croatia, Italy and the Netherlands.

© AFP 2023

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