Eighteen migrants have been found dead in a truck in Bulgaria, a Balkan country facing an influx in recent months not seen since the 2015 migration crisis.
"According to initial elements, the vehicle was illegally transporting about 40 migrants hidden under bundles of wood," the Interior Ministry announced.
Authorities did not immediately give the nationalities of the migrants. Bulgarian media reported they all were from Afghanistan.
The cause of their death is unknown at this stage, but a road accident has been ruled out.
The police were informed by residents of the presence of an abandoned truck near the village of Lokorsko, about 20 km from the capital Sofia.
The truck was found abandoned along a highway near the capital, Sofia. The driver was not there, but police discovered the passengers in a secret compartment below the lumber the vehicle also was carrying.
The smugglers who fled are being actively sought, the ministry said, while the injured occupants were taken to hospital.
Gateway to Europe
Bulgaria, the gateway to the European Union, is located on a major route for migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan to Europe. Only a small number of them plan to stay in the European Union’s poorest member, using Bulgaria instead as a transit corridor on their way west.
To prevent people from entering the country illegally, Bulgaria's government erected a barbed-wire fence along its 259-kilometre border with Turkey but foreigners fleeing poverty or conflict in their home countries manage to enter with the help of local people smugglers.
This drama echoes the discovery in 2019 of the bodies of 39 Vietnamese in a refrigerated truck near London. Police said they died of a combination of a lack of oxygen and overheating in an enclosed space. The truck discovered in the town of Grays, east of London, had arrived in England on a ferry from Zeebrugge in Belgium.
Austria was hit by a similar tragedy in 2015. Police found a refrigerated truck abandoned on the side of an Austrian highway in Parndorf, near the Hungarian border, with 71 decomposing bodies of men, women and children on board.
A court in Hungary convicted an Afghan man and three Bulgarian accomplices in 2018 of being part of a criminal organization and committing multiple crimes, including human smuggling and murder, in connection with the deaths.
Ten other defendants, mostly Bulgarians, were given prison terms ranging between three and 12 years.