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Pressure mounts on Europe as migrant death toll soars

Pressure is mounting on European policymakers following fatal tragedies last week that have highlighted the continued plight of migrants seeking asylum in the region.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve is due to meet with other European officials on Monday regarding the situation at Calais, which has reached crisis point. Thousands of people, many from war-torn Syria, have gathered at the port and are attempting to cross the channel to Britain, where they hope to claim refuge. A further emergency meeting of European Union officials will take place on September 14.

These meetings will come after a string of migrant deaths across the continent in recent months, as record numbers have made the risky journey to Europe from the middle east and North Africa.

Forensic officers stand in front of a truck inside which were found a large number of dead migrants on a motorway near Neusiedl am See, Austria, on August 27, 2015.
DIETER NAGL | AFP |Getty Images
Forensic officers stand in front of a truck inside which were found a large number of dead migrants on a motorway near Neusiedl am See, Austria, on August 27, 2015.

Two separate tragedies hit headlines last week.

On Friday, Austrian authorities confirmed that 71 people, including four children, had been found dead after suffocating in a refrigerated truck discovered on the side of a major highway leading to Vienna, news wires reported.

It topped previous estimates that set the death toll near 20. Speaking at a press conference Friday, Austrian police said they had found Syrian travel documents among the bodies.

Authorities suspect the truck was parked on the side of the highway 24 hours before being discovered Thursday, though it's not yet clear how long migrants had been locked inside.

Five people have been arrested in connection with the tragedy as of Sunday, police said Sunday, including a Bulgarian citizen, according to Reuters. During Friday's press conference, authorities said they suspected a Bulgarian-Hungarian human trafficking ring may be responsible.

Meanwhile, a number of bodies were discovered on shore in Libya after a boat carrying an estimated 400 people sank off the coast on Thursday, according to Reuters reports. Approximately 198 had been rescued, with more than 200 feared dead.

A further 37 people were killed as another boat capsized off the Libyan coast Sunday, according to reports. It's not yet clear how many migrants were on board.

Policymaker action ‘insufficient’

Approximately 2,500 refugees and migrants are believed to have died or gone missing trying to reach Europe this year alone, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a briefing Friday. These estimates did not include the latest Libyan boat.

The number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Europe has exceeded 300,000 over the last eight months, topping the 219,000 which arrived in the entirety of 2014, according to UNHCR estimates.

Numbers have proved overwhelming in countries gripped in their own economic struggles, like Greece, where 200,000 people have landed this year. A further 110,000 people have arrived on the Italian shore.

"Every time there is a big tragedy like this, there's a lot of international attention...but clearly the steps taken thus far are insufficient," Judith Sutherland, associate director for Human Right Watch's Europe and Central Asia division, told CNBC.

She said it was crucial that policymakers start resettling those recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and address the disproportionate burden put on Greece and Italy by attempting to distribute asylum seekers across the European Union.

"If migrants who have arrived in Greece had prospects of orderly relocation within fairly short amount of time, maybe they wouldn't undergo the perilous journey on foot northward, where they face abuse at borders, problems with police, and abuse by smugglers," Sutherland said.


First 10 coffins with bodies of migrants who died in an abandoned lorry are unloaded from a van on August 28, 2015 for an investigation at a forensics institute in Vienna.
DIETER NAGL | AFP | Getty Images
First 10 coffins with bodies of migrants who died in an abandoned lorry are unloaded from a van on August 28, 2015 for an investigation at a forensics institute in Vienna.

She added that European politicians were being road-blocked by anti-immigrant rhetoric from right-wing parties, making it difficult for countries to take action or have a rational debate about the migrant crisis.

This weekend, Theresa May, the home secretary of the U.K.'s ruling Conservative party, said that migrants should be banned from Britain unless they had a job lined up, in an article in the Sunday Times newspaper.

Meanwhile, Hungary is erecting a wall along its border with Serbia in an attempt to control the inflow of migrants.

Speaking in Berlin on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said progress was being made to combat the situation.

"There are already very intensive efforts at the EU level taking place about how we can better cope with this issue," she said, according to Reuters.

"There is fortunately already a high level of agreement between Germany and France that gives me a lot of hope that we will be able to come up with solutions," the Chancellor added.