Ronald Zak/AP

Officials believe the 71 people, believed to be refugees, suffocated

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August 28, 2015 12:05 PM

The dead bodies of 71 people believed to be refugees were found inside an abandoned refrigerated truck Thursday on a major highway in Austria that links Budapest to Vienna, authorities said.

Officials said it’s likely the 71 people suffocated, according to multiple reports. It is unclear why the truck was abandoned.

Authorities said three suspects believed to be involved in a human smuggling ring have been arrested, though the search continues for one more person NBC reports. The three people in custody aren’t thought to be the ring leaders. “[We] expect that that this is the trace that will lead us to the perpetrators,” Austrian prosecutor Johann Fuchs told reporters.

The 59 men, eight women and four children found in a parked truck about 10 miles from Austria’s border with Slovakia and Hungary are believed to have been fleeing war-ravaged Syria, authorities said. A Syrian travel document was found inside the truck. Europe has experienced a surge in migration in recently, with people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and in Africa.

“We must assume now that these are refugees,” said Hans Peter Doskozil, police director of Austria’s Burgenland region, CNN reports. “In concrete terms, it is possible this is a Syrian refugee group.”

Workers cutting grass at the side of the road noticed fluids seeping through the refrigerated truck’s back door, which were from decomposing bodies, reports said.

It’s unclear how long the truck had been there. Temperatures in the area have been as high as 90 degrees. Initially, police were only able to say the vehicle was “full of bodies,” NBC reports.

The 7.5-ton truck formerly belonged to a Slovakian poultry producer, but it appears to have been sold in 2013 or 2014. It’s now registered to a Romanian citizen in the Hungarian city of Kecskemét.

Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency is shocked and saddened: “This tragedy underscores the ruthlessness of people smugglers who have expanded their business from the Mediterranean Sea to the highways of Europe,” she said. “It shows they have no regard for human life and are only after profit. It also [shows] the desperation of people seeking protection or a new life in Europe,” she said, according to an NBC report.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “This is a warning for us to tackle the issue of migration quickly. We have more refugees in the world than at any time since World War II,” according to NBC’s report.

Earlier this month, 86 refugees, including 16 children and a woman who was eight months pregnant, were freed from a windowless truck along another highway in Austria.

Global forced displacement is at record levels in the world, according to a report assessing 2014 by UNHCR, which stated that nearly 60 million people have been forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations.

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