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Refugee Children, Close To Death, Found In Van In Austria

By Karin Strohecker

VIENNA (Reuters) — Three young children suffering from dehydration and close to death have been rescued from a van crammed with 26 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, Austrian police said on Saturday.

The two girls and a boy, aged five and six, were found in a dire state when police stopped the vehicle after a chase near the Austrian town of St. Peter am Hart on the border with Germany, a police spokesman said. They are recovering in hospital.

“The emergency doctor told us they would not have made it much longer — two, maybe three hours,” said David Furtner, police spokesman for Upper Austria province.

The incident follows the discovery of the corpses of 71 refugees in an abandoned lorry on an Austrian highway on Thursday — victims of an unfolding tragedy as refugees and migrants escaping conflict and poverty in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East flock to Europe in unprecedented numbers.

The International Organization for Migration estimates a third of a million people have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, leaving from Libya, Turkey, and other countries to land in Europe.

Hundreds have drowned in shipwrecks but the recent deaths on land have exposed another horrific side of the people-smuggling racket.

“The driver did not give a damn about the people in the back. We would not transport animals under these conditions on our roads in Austria,” said Furtner, referring to Friday’s discovery.

Austria lies on the way from poorer countries in southern and eastern Europe where many refugees first land, such as Greece, to more prosperous nations in the north and west.

Driver Arrested

The 29-year-old Romanian driver of the van found on Friday, registered in Romania, was arrested. The children and their parents were taken to the hospital in Braunau, where they are now in a stable condition.

Among the dead found in the lorry on Thursday, four were children, one of them a baby girl, police said on Saturday. They were presumed to be from Syria — in the grip of a four-year-old civil war — or possibly Afghanistan.

Three Bulgarians and an Afghan arrested in Hungary in connection with the deaths made their first appearance in a court in the central Hungarian town of Kecskemet on Saturday. They were given one month’s detention pending further proceedings.

A prosecution spokesman told journalists the truck had left Kecskemet and picked up the migrants near Hungary’s border with Serbia, before taking them through Hungary to Austria.

Police hoped to identify the dead refugees by examining mobile phones found on some of the bodies. Searches of backpacks, luggage, and clothing had provided few clues apart from one Syrian travel document, said Helmut Marban, a police spokesman in Burgenland province.

Marban was speaking in front of a former customs hall where the lorry was parked on a tarpaulin to catch fluids, with investigators in protective suits gathering forensic evidence.

Police estimated the refugees could have been dead for up to two days and the truck might have been standing on the hard shoulder of the highway for as long as 24 hours.

“It seems unbelievable,” said Marban, asked about how 71 people could have fitted into the medium-sized refrigeration lorry.

“At first when they got in they were of course standing, but when we had to bring them out they were (entangled) all together.”

In nearby camps, refugees said the news had left them stunned, but they saw little choice but to flee to Europe.

“We had to walk so much, it was so dangerous, in the forest and in the water,” said 21-year-old Qariburahman, who had been on the road for a month before Austrian police picked him up and brought him to the Nickelsdorf refugee reception center.

“When I came from Afghanistan, about three people died on the way, the way is very dangerous,” he said.

His journey had cost him $5,000.

A Syrian refugee in the camp of Traiskirchen south of Vienna said people had no choice but to go with traffickers.

“We didn’t know what the car was, maybe it’s a truck, maybe it’s a van. And we had to follow [the trafficker] because in his area, he is the boss,” he said, his pregnant wife and baby son close by.

“My wife, she told me, oh maybe we were supposed to be one of them … maybe it is one of my friends, maybe it is one of my brothers on that truck.'”

“Mass Grave”

On another front in the crisis, Libyan authorities arrested three people on suspicion of involvement in launching a boat packed with migrants that sank off the country’s Mediterranean coast, killing up to 200 people, a security official said.

The vessel, with up to 400 African, Syrian, and Asian migrants on board, capsized on Thursday after setting off from the town of Zuwara, close to the Italian island of Lampedusa and a center of operations for people smugglers exploiting the anarchy in Libya, a country with two rival governments.

By Saturday, 115 bodies had been recovered and about 198 migrants rescued, officials said.

Arrests of smugglers are rare in Libya, where the judiciary has little power since the country is effectively controlled by former rebel groups which helped to oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The head of the European Parliament meanwhile said the “glaring failures” of some European countries to take in refugees were turning the Mediterranean into a mass grave.

Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat, said those European governments that had resisted European Union proposals to agree to a common plan must do more to deal with the crisis.

He did not single out any states. However, Hungary, which is part of Europe’s passport-free Schengen zone, is building a fence along its border with Serbia to contain what it calls a threat to European security, prosperity, and identity.

“The Mediterranean becomes a mass grave, gruesome scenes play out at borders, there is mutual blame — and those in greatest need, seeking our protection, are left without help,” Schulz told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper.

Germany’s highest court on Saturday overturned a weekend ban on assemblies in an eastern town that was the scene of violent protests against refugees. More than 30 policemen were injured in clashes in the town of Heidenhau, near Dresden, last weekend.

Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Heidenau on Monday and condemned the protests. Germany expects the number of asylum seekers to quadruple to about 800,000 this year.

(Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Kecskemet, Anna McIntosh in Traiskirchen, Shadia Nasrallah in Vienna and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Photo: Police escort suspects in the deaths of 71 refugees found in a truck on an Austrian motorway, in Kecskemet, Hungary, August 29, 2015. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Indonesia And Malaysia To Allow Stranded Migrants To Come Ashore

By Jonathan Kaiman and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Indonesia and Malaysia agreed Wednesday to allow thousands of migrants stranded at sea to come ashore, while the United Nations said it would repatriate Bangladeshis detained in three countries for entering illegally.

The announcements following a meeting of three Southeast Asian nations in Malaysia appeared to signal that a weekslong migrant crisis was easing after fishing boats packed with refugees from Myanmar and job-seekers from Bangladesh were abandoned by their captains and blocked from reaching land by governments unwilling to take them in.

Bowing to international pressure, Indonesia and Malaysia, which along with Thailand had said for weeks that the migrants were not welcome, reversed course and said they would be allowed in temporarily to receive humanitarian aid.

But the countries called on the international community to provide financial assistance to help shelter and care for the migrants, many of whom are suffering from severe hunger and dehydration after days or weeks at sea, and to repatriate or resettle them in a third country within one year.

“We commend the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular, for committing to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the some 7,000 irregular migrants still at sea,” William Lacy Swing, director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, said in Geneva.

The foreign affairs ministers of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia said in a joint statement “that necessary measures have been taken by the three countries on humanitarian grounds, beyond their international obligations, in addressing the current influx of irregular migrants and further underlined that the issue cannot be addressed solely by the three countries.”

Thailand’s foreign minister skipped a joint news conference following the meeting in Malaysia. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said Thailand had agreed to provide humanitarian aid but would not shelter refugees.

The Thai government has previously said it cannot take in any more migrants since it already hosts tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar.

The IOM said it would bring back between 2,000 and 3,000 Bangladeshi citizens who are believed to be jailed in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia for migrating illegally to those countries.

Asif Munir, IOM spokesman in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, said the organization had set up a $1 million emergency fund to resettle the detainees.

“This is one of the recognized ways to bring back illegal migrants from the landing country to their motherland,” Munir said.

The fates of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, who are fleeing persecution in their home country, remained unclear. Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry officials said their nation would not take in the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Myanmar and face state-sponsored discrimination.

While many Rohingya refugees fled from Myanmar, others left on boats from southern Bangladesh, where some 500,000 are registered as refugees.

Bangladesh had faced intense criticism at home for failing to rescue its own citizens who were stranded at sea in recent weeks, after a crackdown by Thailand and Malaysia resulted in many of the boats being abandoned by their captains and left adrift in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca.

Late Tuesday and early Wednesday, more than 370 migrants landed in Indonesia after floating for months on overcrowded boats, Indonesian officials said.

More than 3,000 migrants have reached land in Southeast Asia in recent weeks, about half of them in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Many have spoken of abysmal conditions on the boats. Some say smugglers beat and tortured them then fled off the coast of Thailand, leaving them adrift without food or water. Many have died, leading experts to warn of an epidemic of “floating coffins.”

The Thai government is planning a conference of Southeast Asian nations on May 29 to discuss the issue. Thailand’s deputy foreign minister said Wednesday that Myanmar, which had previously said it would not participate, had accepted an invitation to the meeting, according to The Associated Press.

(Los Angeles Times staff writers Kaiman reported from Bangkok and Bengali from Mumbai, India. Special correspondent Mohiuddin Kader in Dhaka contributed to this report.)

Photo: Jonathan Kaiman/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Bangladesh Ferry Carrying 250 Capsizes, Many Missing

By Nazrul Islam, dpa

Dhaka (dpa) — At least two people were killed and more than 100 were missing after a ferry carrying an estimated 250 people capsized in a river in central Bangladesh Monday, police said.

Rescuers were searching for victims in the district of Munshiganj, about 30 kilometres south of the capital Dhaka, police officer Toffazal Hossain said.

He said the rescuers had found two bodies in the river.

Local residents and divers rescued about 100 passengers from the Padma river after the boat carrying some 250 people sank, said local government official Mohammad Khalekuzzaman.

He said divers from the Fire Service and Civil Defence and the Navy had joined the rescue operation.

They had not yet found the sunken ferry itself, he said.

A salvage vessel was en route to the scene, an official at Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority said.

The ferry was overloaded with more than 250 passengers, and overturned in gusty winds, survivor Syed Mohammad Sadi told private broadcaster Channel 24. His wife and children were among the missing.

The government launched an investigation, ordering officials to report within 10 days.

Ferry accidents in Bangladesh are frequent due to poor safety measures and lax implementation of laws.

AFP Photo/Munir Uz Zaman

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Bangladesh Ferry Carrying Hundreds Sinks

Gajaria (Bangladesh) (AFP) – A heavily-laden ferry capsized and sank in central Bangladesh on Thursday after being caught in a storm, leaving at least 12 people dead and hundreds more missing, police and officials said.

Survivors of what is the latest in a string of ferry disasters to blight Bangladesh said the vessel began to sway when the storm hit, finally tipping over and sinking in minutes, giving passengers little time to leap to safety.

The exact number of passengers was not immediately known. It is common for ferries to carry many more than their official limit.

“We are receiving confusing figures on how many passengers were on board when it sank, but the number could range from 200 to 350,” said district government administrator Saiful Hasan, who is coordinating the rescue effort.

“The toll now stands at 12,” he said of the accident on the river Meghna in Munshiganj district, some 30 miles south of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.

Local police chief Ferdous Ahmed also confirmed the recovery of the bodies, which included at least two women and one child.

The double-decker vessel was travelling to the southern district of Shariatpur from Dhaka when it encountered problems and sank in the mid-afternoon, according to the police.

“Around 20-30 people managed to swim to safety when the boat went down,” Ahmed told AFP.

Rescue coordinator Hasan told AFP that a navy ship, a salvage vessel and about a dozen speedboats had reached the spot. Fire service divers had located the sunken ferry and were attempting to recover bodies as darkness fell.

The width of the river, the depth of the water and the strong currents were hampering rescuers’ efforts to retrieve the wreckage, Hasan said.

Hundreds of distraught relatives gathered on the banks of the river as the bodies were laid in lines in order to be identified.

Others accompanied rescuers on boats as they searched for the missing passengers.

25-year-old Sumon, who only uses one name, said his uncle and teenage cousin were both missing.

“They were travelling home from Dhaka to our village,” Sumon told AFP.

The local online newspaper quoted a survivor of the accident, Abdur Razzaq, as saying that the boat was hit by the storm suddenly and sank in a matter of minutes.

Fire service officer Nurul Alam, who was taking part in the rescue effort, told AFP: “I fear there are many more bodies trapped inside the vessel.”

Ferry accidents are common in Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest nations which is crisscrossed with more than 230 rivers.

Experts blame poorly maintained vessels, flaws in design and overcrowding for most of the tragedies.

Storms known locally as Kalboishakhi often hit Bangladesh during the early summer months in the lead-up to the monsoon, which generally begins in the first week of June.

Boats are the main form of travel in much of Bangladesh’s remote rural areas, especially in the southern and northeastern regions.

Some 150 people were killed in the same district in March 2012 after a overcrowded ferry carrying about 200 passengers sank after being hit by an oil barge in the dead of night.

In 2011, 32 people were killed after a passenger vessel sank in the same river in the same district after colliding with a cargo ship.

At least 85 people drowned in 2009 when an overloaded triple-decker ferry capsized off Bhola Island in the country’s south.

Naval officials have said more than 95 percent of Bangladesh’s hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized boats do not meet minimum safety regulations.

Photo via AFP