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Dispatches: For Those Trying to Reach Safety in Europe, Land can be as Deadly as the Sea

More gruesome details will undoubtedly emerge, but we already know enough to be horrified: Up to 50 people died in what were surely agonizing deaths, locked in a truck parked on an Austrian highway, leading to Vienna. 

Forensic police officers inspect a parked truck in which up to 50 migrants were found dead, on a motorway near Parndorf, Austria August 27, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

That so many should die in a single episode, so close to a European capital where ministers are meeting to discuss migration in the Western Balkans, has made this international news. But the land route into the European Union trekked by migrants and asylum seekers has claimed thousands of victims over the years. In March, two Iraqi men died of hypothermia at the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. In April, 14 Somalis and Afghans were killed by a high-speed train in Macedonia as they walked along the tracks. Last November, a 45-day-old baby died with his father on those same tracks.

While deaths in the Mediterranean capture much of the attention, the list of those who have died of suffocation, dehydration, and exposure to the elements at land borders is unconscionably long. One count puts the overall death toll at EU borders at more than 30,000 since 2000. The smugglers directly responsible for deaths and abuse should be brought to justice. Ill-treatment by border guards and police in Macedonia and Serbia adds to the perils of the journey.

But there’s lots of blame to spread around. Failed EU policies, which place an unfair burden on countries at its frontiers, and Greece’s inability to handle the numbers of migrants, have contributed to the crisis at EU borders. Instead of erecting fences, as Hungary is, the EU should expand safe and legal alternatives for people seeking entry, especially those fleeing persecution and conflict. This means increasing refugee resettlement, facilitating access to family reunification, and developing programs for providing humanitarian visas. It also requires EU governments to meet their legal obligations to provide access to asylum and humane conditions for those already present.

EU countries should step up to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in debt-stricken Greece, where 160,000 migrants have arrived since the start of the year. The umbrella group European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) has called for EU countries to relocate 70,000 asylum seekers from Greece within a year, double the insufficient relocation numbers agreed by governments for both Greece and Italy in July.

Many of those traveling along the Western Balkans route and into Austria are from Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan – countries experiencing war or generalized violence. Others are hoping to improve their economic prospects and the lives of their children. None of them deserve to be exploited, abused, or to die.



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