Left to die in trucks, fences built to keep them out: Europe must defend migrants' 'dignity' leaders say ahead of talks

A Syrian man who lost his legs after shelling is helped by other migrants after crossing the border from Greece to Macedonia on August 29, 2015

EUROPEAN Union leaders called for action to defend the “dignity” of migrants ahead of fresh emergency talks, as tensions flared on the bloc’s eastern borders over the escalating crisis.

Home affairs ministers will meet on September 14 in Brussels to try and “strengthen the European response” to the influx, said Luxembourg, which holds the rotating EU presidency.

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

Europe has been struggling to cope with the record numbers of people flooding across its borders—some 300,000 this year alone, according to the UN—in a crisis which has exposed deep divisions within the bloc.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday said it was “scandalous” some Eastern European countries were refusing to accept more migrants and said Hungary’s construction of a barrier to stop new arrivals “did not respect Europe’s common values”—drawing an angry response from Budapest.

The discovery of 71 decomposing corpses in an abandoned truck on an Austrian motorway last week has served as a chilling reminder of Europe’s failure to help those fleeing persecution in the Middle East and Africa.

Some 2,500 have died trying to make the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats—the latest shipwreck claiming 111 lives—while many more have poured in through the bloc’s eastern borders.

Hungarian police said a fifth suspected human trafficker had been arrested over Thursday’s gruesome discovery in the truck, even as Austrian police said three children rescued from another van had “vanished” from hospital.

People “fleeing war, persecution, torture, oppression, must be welcomed” and treated with “dignity,” said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, while Pope Francis meanwhile called for “effective cooperation” against “crimes that are an offence to the whole of humanity”.

The migrants crossing the Mediterranean head either for Italy, where another 513 arrived on Sunday, adding to some 108,000 this year, or Greece, which many also reach overland via Turkey.

Many then try to come north, in the case of Greece trekking up through the western Balkans bound for EU member Hungary.

The journey is exhausting, and expensive. “We can’t afford this at all, and every step of the way we have to pay,” Samar, a 40-year-old from Damascus, told AFP as she waited in the sun for hours at a filthy reception camp in Presevo, Serbia.

“We are in a labyrinth, going from queue to queue, and here in Serbia, the police are shouting at us like we are animals,” the mother of two teenage boys said, tears welling in her eyes.

Razor wire fence
The surge of new arrivals has created a crisis in Eastern Europe—Macedonia declared a state of emergency two weeks ago while Hungary, which recorded 50,000 new arrivals this month, on Saturday finished setting up a barrier of NATO-standard razor wire along its border with Serbia.

Budapest is also building a four-metre (13 feet) high fence along the 175-kilometre (110-mile) stretch, which is patrolled by border police with dogs and 4x4s, and wants to stiffen penalties for people entering illegally.

Right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government hit back at Fabius’ criticism of the plan on Sunday as “shocking and groundless” and said it would summon a French Embassy representative over the comments. 

The fence is not proving much use in any case, with police saying that 3,080 migrants crossed over on Saturday, the second-highest daily total.

On Sunday, AFP witnessed a group of about 200 migrants passing through carrying plastic bags, rucksacks and bottles of water, who called out a greeting of “salam alaikum”—“peace be with you” in Arabic.

Charge huge sums
Many of the new arrivals in Europe are smuggled in by gangs who charge huge sums to move people across the border, among them the five people now in custody in Hungary over the Austrian lorry.

The three Bulgarians and one Afghan already in detention on Saturday said they were innocent as a court in Hungary remanded them in custody until September 29. A fourth Bulgarian has also been arrested but has yet to enter a plea.

The 7.5-tonne truck with Hungarian number plates found in Austria contained the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, a toddler and three young boys, provoking international revulsion.

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

Hungarian news portal Index.hu on Sunday quoted the Hungarian driver of another vehicle as saying that he saw the driver of the truck running away from the back doors in panic and being picked up in a car that then sped off.

Three Syrian children rescued with severe dehydration from another van packed with migrants were taken out of hospital by their parents on Friday and “vanished”, most likely to Germany, Austrian police said.

“The van was driven by a Romanian and had Spanish number plates and arrived from Hungary,” spokesman David Furtner told AFP said Sunday, adding that while they have arrested 93 people in Upper Austria state alone most still escape.

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