Greek police have found 41 people alive in a refrigerated truck in a discovery that has underscored the extraordinary risk migrants are prepared to take to get into Europe.
At least a third were found to have trouble breathing, and seven were rushed to a nearby hospital with respiratory problems.
The vehicle’s refrigeration system had broken down by the time the truck was stopped at a motorway toll station outside the city of Xanthi in north-east Greece and its passengers, of apparent Afghan origin, were discovered.
“A police operation is underway but we believe the lorry entered the country from Turkey,” said Lt Col Theodoros Chronopolous, a police spokesman. “Discoveries of this sort are rare but happening more frequently mainly because migrants want to avoid the islands.”
The truck’s driver, a 40-year-old Georgian national, was arrested, Chronopolous said. The lorry is believed to have raised suspicion partly because it had no markings or livery.
The discovery comes after the deaths of 39 people, all believed to be Vietnamese nationals, who were found by UK police in the back of a refrigerated lorry in Essex.
Two male lorry drivers appeared in court in the UK and Ireland last week facing manslaughter and human trafficking charges. Eight people were arrested on Monday in connection with the incident in Vietnam, according to state media outlets.
Greece is in the midst of a resurgence of asylum seeker arrivals from Turkey with numbers not experienced since the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015 when more than a million people, mostly from Syria, landed on the shores of Lesbos, Samos and other Aegean isles.
More than 35,000 men, women and children are in Greek island camps where deplorable conditions are the subject of mounting concern and condemnation from human rights groups. Most of the asylum seekers are believed to want to reach other parts of Europe.
Chronopoulos said it was thought the lorry was headed inland towards Thessaloniki. “Where the migrants were ultimately destined is not clear,” he said. “Their first stop was Greece, their second elsewhere in Europe. Traffickers and migrants are taking ever greater risks.”
Greece is currently struggling to deal with the biggest number of migrant and refugee arrivals since 2015 when more than a million people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece.
An estimated 35,000 people, including many families with young children, are stuck in hugely overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, the Greek Civil Protection Ministry says.
The vast majority of them are trapped in asylum limbo and living in conditions that Europe’s human rights watchdog last week described as “abysmal.”
Paying a visit to Greek island camps, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, described the situation as “explosive.”
The commissioner said: “There is a desperate lack of medical care and sanitation in the vastly overcrowded camps I have visited. People queue for hours to get food and to go to the bathroom when these are available.” She urged for measures to be taken to improve conditions.
Greece has just passed a controversial law that shortens the asylum process by cutting out some options for appeal. It also makes it easier to deport those rejected.
The change in legislation was brought forward by Greece’s conservative government, elected in July. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has repeatedly asked for a cohesive policy from its European Union partners and an equitable distribution.
There is currently a backlog of 68,000 asylum requests, said Greek Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisohoidis, adding that claimants have to sometimes wait for years before receiving a reply.
Chrisohoidis said that under the new asylum law, requests will be handled within 60 days.
Human rights groups have voiced strong concern that the new law will restrict access to international protection for vulnerable people and pointed out that it may also lead to a new surge in people trying to cross through Greece illegally in an attempt to completely bypass the country’s asylum system.