LOKORSKO, Bulgaria: Bulgarian authorities said on Friday they had found 18 migrants dead in an abandoned truck, as the Balkan nation struggles with an increase in illicit border crossings.
The vehicle “was illegally transporting around 40 migrants hidden under some wood”, the interior ministry said. “Eighteen of them have died.”
It is believed to be one of the deadliest people smuggling incidents recorded in the country.
After locals alerted the police, they found the truck was located near the village of Lokorsko, 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.
The cause of the migrants’ deaths has not been established.
“I can’t say for sure what happened. There was a lack of oxygen, they were cold and wet, and they certainly had not eaten for a few days,” Health Minister Asen Medjidiev told journalists.
Fourteen people found still alive in the truck, including eight in serious condition, were taken to hospital, he added.
Another ten people were found hiding in nearby shrubbery and will be taken to hospital for examination, said Medjidiev.
According to public radio BNR, all those in the truck are believed to be men from Afghanistan.
An AFP photographer saw several ambulances leaving the scene.
A search was underway for smugglers believed to have driven the truck and fled, authorities said.
EU-member Bulgaria, which serves as a gateway into the bloc, has been trying to tighten security to stop a rising number of people seeking to cross the border.
The country has stepped up controls along the 234-kilometre (145-mile) 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 have 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 two billion euros ($2.1 billion) to reinforce the border fence and improve surveillance, but Brussels has so far refused.
Friday’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.
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 Croatia, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands.