Police in Bulgaria on Friday uncovered a truck abandoned along a highway near the capital of Sofia, which contained the bodies of 18 migrants who had suffocated to death in a secret compartment underneath a load of lumber. According to initial information, the truck had been carrying around 40 migrants, with the survivors being rushed to nearby hospitals for emergency treatment.
Bulgarian Health Minister Assen Medzhidiev stated that the survivors were in a very bad condition, citing lack of oxygen, wet clothing, and extreme cold as factors. The nationalities of the migrants were not immediately disclosed, although Bulgarian media reported they were all from Afghanistan.
Bulgaria, a Balkan country of 7 million, is located on a major route for migrants from the Middle East and Afghanistan to Europe. In order to prevent illegal entry, a barbed-wire fence was erected along the 259-kilometer (161-mile) border with Turkey. However, people smugglers continue to assist foreigners fleeing poverty or conflict in their home countries.
The deaths of Europe-bound refugees and asylum-seekers at sea are more common, but the tragedy in Bulgaria is not the first time groups of migrants have been found dead in abandoned vehicles. In October 2019, British police discovered the bodies of 39 people inside a refrigerated container that had been hauled from Zeebrugge in Belgium, and in August 2015, 71 migrants suffocated to death in the back of a refrigerated truck in Austria.
In 2018, a court in Hungary convicted an Afghan man and three Bulgarian accomplices 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.