The Austrian police stopped the van July 14 and found 24 men, 12 women and 18 children crammed into a space of about 86 square feet. "This is worse than any cattle transport," Helmut Neumar, the court chairman, said during the trial, according to the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.
The refugees in the van came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They spent several hours inside the hot and stuffy vehicle, without enough air and water. Some of them had to relieve themselves inside the van during the drive. One person tried to drink window-cleaning liquid which he found in the van because he was thirsty. Two people lost consciousness, and a woman had to be resuscitated. Someone ripped out a rubber seal on a door to get some air through the split.
The driver of the van explained in court how he ended up transporting the refugees. He claimed he had lost his job and was looking for a way to feed his family when he met a man who promised him a job in Hungary. The driver claimed he didn't know he was to transport refugees and was first told it would be a cargo transport. In Budapest, he was brought to a van, and drove to a wooded area, where refugees got into the vehicle. The driver was paid 500 euros.
Half an hour into the trip, he said, he heard people knocking in the cabin. He stopped the van and saw that some of the passengers had brought an unconscious woman from the van to get some fresh air. He told one of the passengers to begin CPR and continued to drive after the woman regained consciousness. At a rest stop, he bought water for the refugees — 12 bottles for 54 people.
Thursday's tragedy involving 71 refugees found dead on a highway between Budapest and Vienna was mentioned in court during the sentencing of the driver in the July incident: "It is luck that no one died in your case," the court chairman said, according to Der Standard.
"I thank God for this," the driver answered.
During the trial, the prosecutor pointed out that the high number of people jammed into a small vehicle shows that smuggling organizations will stop at nothing to maximize profits, according to the news agency APA. Even if the driver is only a small cog in the wheel, a harsh sentence is necessary to discourage the smuggling networks, he said.
Several other trials against smugglers are in progress in Korneuburg and other courts in Austria. A 33-year-old man from Syria was sentenced to two years in prison in Vienna this week. He organized 32 transports for 178 Syrian refugees through Austria to Poland, from where they intended to get to Germany and Scandinavia. He was paid 50 euros per refugee. Each Syrian refugee pays 10,000 to 15,000 euros to the smugglers to get to Europe, the defendant said during the trial. In many cases, they must sell all their possessions at home for a trip that often ends in a rescue, if not death.
In another incident at the beginning of August, the Austrian police discovered a truck near the town of St. Poelten with 86 refugees inside. 70 adults and 16 children from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan were squeezed inside the vehicle for more than 12 hours. The police stopped the truck because it seemed overloaded. The driver jumped out and ran before the police caught him. The refugees were alive, but in bad condition. Several people lost consciousness, and a pregnant woman was brought to the hospital.