A 19-year old people smuggler (center) was sentenced to seven years in jail on June 27, 2022, following the deaths of two Syria refugees in October 2021 | Photo: Theresa Puchegger/APA/THERESA PUCHEGGER/picturedesk.com/picture-alliance
A 19-year old people smuggler (center) was sentenced to seven years in jail on June 27, 2022, following the deaths of two Syria refugees in October 2021 | Photo: Theresa Puchegger/APA/THERESA PUCHEGGER/picturedesk.com/picture-alliance

A man who drove a van in which two Syrians suffocated last fall has been sentenced to seven years in prison. The 19-year-old was allegedly part of a network that smuggled refugees and migrants, mostly Syrians, from Hungary to Austria.

A people smuggler was sentenced to seven years in prison on Monday (June 27) by a jury in Eisenstadt, Austria, following the deaths of two Syrian men who suffocated in the back of the truck the man was driving.

The 19-year old Latvian was found guilty of people smuggling and bodily harm resulting in death (German: Körperverletzung mit tödlichem Ausgang), but not of murder, according to Austrian news agency APA. The court verdict is reportedly not final yet.

A van driven by the man was stopped by officials at the Austrian-Hungarian border in October of last year. A group of 30 refugees had reportedly been locked in the cargo area for roughly eight hours without a break, according reports from APA citing the prosecution. (News reports at the time said that 28 people -- Syrians and Kurds -- had been in the cargo area.)

Refugees locked in cargo area, oxygen running out

Prosecutors at the trial described the ordeal the people went through when oxygen in the sealed cargo area of the van started to run out -- they reportedly ripped out the gaskets from the doors and screamed, trying to draw attention to their situation. Help came too late for two Syrian men, who were between 25 and 30 years of age and in "poor physical condition," news agency AP reported in October.

After the van was stopped, the 19-year old driver fled the scene. But he was later arrested in his home country of Latvia.

During the trial, the man reportedly confessed to people smuggling and admitted to knowing the people in the back of his truck were not doing well, but he denied murder charges.

Police and firefighters inspect a van in which two migrants were found dead in Siegendorf, Austria, near the border with Hungary, October 19, 2021 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP/Robert Jaeger
Police and firefighters inspect a van in which two migrants were found dead in Siegendorf, Austria, near the border with Hungary, October 19, 2021 | Photo: Picture-alliance/AP/Robert Jaeger


Part of €150 million smuggling network

Austria officials believe that the man was part of a network that smuggled tens of thousands of refugees and migrants across Europe.

Last month, the Austria interior ministry announced that 205 suspects had been arrested in Central and Eastern Europe in connection to an investigations into this network.

Police estimate the group smuggled more than 36,000 mostly Syrian refugees across the EU since the beginning of 2021, making a revenue of €150 million. They reportedly each paid the smugglers between €3,000 and €4,500 to get from Hungary to Vienna -- which investigators allege served as the network's hub -- to then travel on to Western European countries such as Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Smuggled inside a truck or van: Deadly dangerous

This is not the first incident in Europe or Austria in which migrants or refugees have died of suffocation after being locked in the cargo area of a van or truck.

Last year, a group of smugglers were sentenced to up to 27 years in prison in the UK following the deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a container that was found near London in October 2019.

In Austria, 71 people were found dead, locked inside the hermetically sealed cargo area of a truck, in August 2015. The truck had been brought across the Hungarian-Austrian border by smugglers and then abandoned. A court sentenced four men to life in prison over the incident in 2019.

 

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