Bulgarian authorities found the bodies of 18 Afghan migrants who suffocated to death inside an abandoned truck on Friday in the country’s deadliest people smuggling incident to date.
The deadly incident comes as the country grapples with an increase in illegal border crossings. On Friday, officials discovered 52 Afghans hiding under wooden planks inside the truck.
Eighteen of the migrants, who were being transported from Turkey to Western Europe through Serbia, died from suffocation.
The victims were smuggled in hidden compartments of the truck that were lined with foil, causing them to become dizzy. Many of the 34 surviving migrants remain hospitalized with carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling exhaust pipe gases, AFP reported.
Six Bulgarians, including the leader of the smuggling operation, have been indicted in the case, according to Hristo Krastev, a spokesperson for the Sofia Public Prosecutor’s Office.
Each faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on the charges, which include involuntary manslaughter and participating in organized crime and people smuggling.
One of the suspects is still at large and was indicted in absentia. Two others who had been arrested are not expected to be charged.
Officials said the truck’s drivers heard loud noises and knocking coming from the back but by the time they stopped to investigate, the 18 victims were dead, Deputy Attorney General Borislav Sarafov said. The drivers then fled the scene.
“The people transported were curled up and pushed against each other like in a tin can… They died slowly and painfully for 30 to 60 minutes. It is an extraordinary human tragedy,” Sarafov told reporters.
The victims were believed to have been between the ages of 13 and 35. Each paid up to $7,500 to the smugglers to be transported.
“It was out of greed that the smugglers carried 52 people. They had previously transported between 25 and 35 people at a time, at least twice a month,” Sarafov said.
The hidden compartments inside the truck which held the migrants were lined with aluminum foil in order to make their presence undetectable to thermal cameras
Bulgaria has recently had to tighten security amid a rising number of migrants hoping to cross into the country through its southern border with Turkey. The country has also faced mounting accusations of abuse toward people trying to enter, with many asylum seekers claiming they’ve been locked up, stripped and beaten.
Bulgaria has denied the accusations.