LONDON — The deaths en masse of scores of migrants on land and at sea prompted fresh calls on Friday for Europe to overhaul the way it responds to a never-before-seen influx of men, women and children that shows no sign of abating despite risks that seem to rise by the day.
The latest incidents in a year marked by tragic ends to desperate flights shocked the consciences of many across the continent.
In Austria, 71 people — including four children, the youngest just a year old — suffocated after being locked in the back of a truck, authorities said Friday. It remained unclear why the migrants, at least some of whom were believed to have been fleeing the war in Syria, were left to die. Hungarian authorities arrested four suspected smugglers, but a police official in Austria acknowledged that they were probably low-level operatives and said the ringleaders remained at large.
Meanwhile, about 2,000 miles away, at least 117 people drowned overnight Thursday when a boat, unprepared for the rigors of a trans-Mediterranean voyage, capsized soon after it departed from the Libyan coast.
The deaths added to a toll of at least 2,500 people who have lost their lives this year while seeking sanctuary in Europe. As the grisly details of the recent incidents emerged, officials and rights advocates demanded that the continent’s leaders create safe passages that would allow refugees to bypass treacherous journeys in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.
“The solution is not to increase border controls but to open more legal ways to Europe,” Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said at a news conference in the town of Eisenstadt, near the highway where authorities on Thursday discovered the truck’s gruesome cargo.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government has in recent days called for unified European asylum policies, said there were “intense efforts on a European level so this issue can be dealt with better than we are able to do now.”
But there was also deep skepticism that European leaders would reach agreement after months of indecision and bitter recrimination over who should bear the burdens of the war-, poverty- and oppression-driven exodus from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
Earlier tragedies have come and gone with little coherent action as well as an ever-growing disparity between the countries that have welcomed tens of thousands of asylum-seekers and those that have spurned efforts to settle hundreds. Several Eastern European nations, as well as Spain and Britain, have proved resistant to any attempt to impose Europe-wide quotas for accepting refugees.
“I’d say that something major would have to happen. But something major already has happened,” said Neil Quilliam, who leads the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House. “It’s hard to see what it will take to actually change the policy.”
The refugee crisis that has roiled Europe this year has myriad causes, and rights advocates acknowledge that there are no easy solutions. But migration experts say the crisis could be mitigated by policies that expand access to visas for those from conflict-ridden countries and allow asylum-seekers to apply from their home regions, rather than waiting until they have risked their lives on treks across thousands of miles of land and sea.
“People use smugglers because they lack safe and legal alternatives to get into the European Union,” said Katerina Kratzmann, head of the International Organization for Migration’s Austria office. “Migration itself is not the problem. It’s just reflecting what’s happening in the world right now. But the system we have in the E.U. doesn’t match that situation.”
But the deadly incidents this week reflect the lengths to which people are willing to go to flee their home countries and arrive on a continent that is seen as an oasis of stability and prosperity.
The United Nations’ refugee agency said Friday that more than 300,000 people have tried to flee across the Mediterranean so far this year, far surpassing the 219,000 who sought to cross during all of 2014. At least 2,500 have died this year; but as was the case with the migrants who drowned Thursday night, the true toll may never be known.
Jamal Naji Zubia, who heads the foreign-media department for the Tripoli-based “National Salvation” government, one of two rival authorities in Libya, said Friday that 117 people drowned and 198 were rescued after a migrant ship sank off the coast of far-western Libya.
Fouad Gamoudi, coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Libya and Tunisia, said his staff had seen at least 40 bodies on the deck of the badly damaged wooden boat, which was hauled ashore in the western Libyan town of Zuwarah after it capsized.
“Their boat was supposed to go to Italy. But it didn’t even make it 10 miles,” he said. “The ships they’re using are getting worse and worse. But people keep coming from all over.”
Once in Libya, the migrants are desperate to leave. The country has been torn apart by civil war, with multiple factions controlling various patches of territory.
Underlining the confused situation, there were conflicting reports Friday as to whether one boat had sunk or two. The reported death toll initially ranged from 80 to 200.
The peril doesn’t end after migrants arrive in Europe, as the deaths of 71 people in the back of the truck abandoned on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna attest. The decomposed bodies were discovered Thursday, and police were uncertain until Friday exactly how many were inside.
Among the dead, 59 were men and eight were women, said Hans Peter Doskozil, the police chief in the eastern Austrian province of Burgenland. Also dead were a baby girl and three boys ages 8 to 10.
Doskozil said that although the identities of the dead were still being established, a Syrian identity card found among the bodies suggested the group may have been fleeing the civil war in that country, as is true of many of the refugees who pass through Austria en route from Greece and the Balkans to northern Europe.
Those arrested Friday by Hungarian police included a Bulgarian national of Lebanese descent believed to be the truck’s owner. Two other Bulgarians and an Afghan were also taken into custody, Hungarian police said.
Doskozil said Austrian authorities were working with Hungary to seek the extradition of those in custody. But he acknowledged that the suspects were probably in the lowest ranks of smuggling operations that have grown increasingly sophisticated and lucrative as the number of migrants has surged.
Ruth Schoeffl, a Vienna-based spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency, said aid workers had in recent weeks received increasing reports from migrants of being packed into overcrowded vehicles with little or no access to food or water, even as summer temperatures climbed.
Still, she said the horror of 71 people suffocating to death was unlikely to deter others from attempting the journey.
“They know it’s dangerous, but still they try,” she said. “They’re running for their lives anyway. So they take the risk.”
Faiola reported from Berlin. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin, Karla Adam in London and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.