Scores of migrants have been hospitalised in Croatia after being pulled from the back of a people smuggler’s van displaying British registration plates.
In all, the vehicle contained 67 asylum seekers, 42 of whom needed to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after falling unconscious.
The migrants affected were treated in local hospitals and made a full recovery after police discovered them in the van, which was travelling close to the Bosnian border near the town of Novska. Officers said some of the group, which included children, were travelling in the vehicle’s cargo compartment.
“[Carbon monoxide poisoning] is a serious medical condition and it is good that they were found,” Croatian health minister Milan Kujundzic told the local Hina news agency. “Most will be released, but three or four will remain hospitalised for observation.” He added that two children under the age of 12 were found in the van.
Vlaho Orepic, the country’s interior minister, said some of the migrants were dehydrated and in a serious condition, having not eaten for around five days. He told reporters that others were vomiting or unconscious.
“We are talking about people who have illegally entered Croatia, and after they have been humanely taken care of, they will be returned to the country from where they came,” he added.
Police said the driver of the van, who may have been attempting to transport his human cargo to the UK, managed to escape by running across nearby fields after the vehicle was stopped. They added that two Bulgarians had been arrested on suspicion of human trafficking as a result of the incident.
It is likely that the overloaded van entered the county from Serbia, which has become home to rising numbers of migrants since the so-called Balkan route was closed a number of months ago. While migrants are no longer able to move freely through Croatia and into Western Europe, people traffickers are charging thousands of euros to sneak asylum seekers across the country.
Serbia last month introduced harsher penalties for people smugglers caught seeking to profit from the misery of migrants attempting to pass through the country. Under the new laws, organised people smugglers will face up to 15 years in prison, as opposed to the previous 12. Anybody caught assisting the illegal crossing of Serbia’s borders will face sentences of up to eight years, up from five.
In August 2015, police in Austria found 71 dead migrants in the back of a truck abandoned by the side of a motorway, highlighting the dangers faced by asylum seekers making their way across Europe even after successfully crossing the Mediterranean. Officials fear a similar incident is all but inevitable as ruthless smugglers continue to take advantage of the thousands of desperate migrants and refugees.