Suffocation of migrants and prisoners during transportation, tales of “neglect” and alleged “punishment”


71 people lost their lives through suffocation in this truck, Austria (Twitter)

Suffocating people to death in trucks and shipping containers is a recurring theme in my writing and an issue that is investigated in some cases and suppressed in others. People smugglers take advantage of the desperate circumstances of those fleeing war zones or impoverished transporting them across Europe in vehicles devoid of any air ventilation system. Those caring for prisoners neglect their duties allowing detainees to die in horrific circumstances as shipping containers are turned into coffins. Today once again we hear via the Guardian that a refrigerated truck containing over 120 people, believed to be mostly Syrian had tried to cross the Bulgarian border with Turkey. Fortunately this time there were no fatalities. The newspaper states,

“38 men, 33 women and 58 children were found hidden behind bottles of sparkling water at the border crossing of Kapitan Andreevo, but their state of health was not a cause for concern.”

The lorry driver has been arrested.”

Back in August we heard of the tragic case of suffocation of men, women and children, labelled “migrants” and “refugees” discovered in a lorry in Austria near to the Hungarian border. (An article in the “Links” section of this article explains the terminology used to refer to those seeking to cross borders to find a new life.) Lindsay Hilsum of Channel 4 News tweeted, “we can see forensic teams at truck on the side of the A4 in Austria. Terrible smell of death. Austrian police say refugees suffocated inside.” Scenes of putrifying liquid leaking from the vehicle were described by those at the scene with the discovery of partially decomposed bodies inside. Reuters stated that there were 71 migrants dead in the Austria truck; 59 men, 8 women, 4 children including Syrian refugees confirmed by the police. This is how the story was broken by RT,

See “20 to 50 migrants found dead in truck in Austria, suffocation likely cause”

The Guardian later reported,

“Hungarian police have arrested the driver of a lorry found on an Austrian motorway with the decomposing bodies of 71 people, including a baby girl, inside.

Three Bulgarians and an Afghan man have been detained, police said. Detectives have also questioned almost 20 people and searched homes, they added. Earlier Austrian police said the lorry owner was a Bulgarian citizen of Lebanese origin.”

Is it so different to the transportation of Jews to the concentration camps of Europe that often died packed like sardines in trains as so poignantly portrayed in the film “Schindlers List” Schindler played by Liam Neesam hoses down the carriages with water realizing those inside are collapsing from the heat, see video link,

There is endless discrimination and prejudice against those fleeing with borders closed. Ironically it is often western wars that have helped create the circumstances leading to mass migration with those fleeing blamed and blocked or labelled only as “economic migrants” out to benefit from lax benefit systems. There is little understanding of the conditions and extreme poverty that can cause people to uproot, pay ruthless smugglers the last of their savings and make a journey that could cost their life. As scenes from Macedonia showed recently families fleeing have often lost everything, their circumstances so distressing that hardened reporters admitted to being reduced to tears.

Death by suffocation in trucks is not uncommon. Back in 2001 the Telegraph reported the sentencing of a gang of human smugglers including Perry Wacker, the Dutch driver responsible for transportation of Chinese who received a 14 year sentence for 58 counts of manslaughter. Telegraph stated,

“customs officers at Dover found the 54 Chinese men and four women, all in their late teens or twenties, dead from suffocation in the container supposedly carrying tomatoes. Only two men survived the ordeal. “

See link, “‘Human cargo’ gang jailed over deaths of 58 Chinese”

In 2008 the Guardian reported,

“fifty-four illegal Burmese migrants being smuggled by traffickers in southern Thailand suffocated in the sweltering confines of a tiny seafood container lorry yesterday after the air-conditioning system failed.”

“Colonel Kraithong Chanthongbai of the Thai police said: ;The people said they tried to bang on the walls of the container to tell the driver they were dying, but he told them to shut up as police would hear them when they crossed through check-points inside Thailand.'”

See “54 Burmese migrants suffocate in packed lorry”

Suffocation of prisoners during transportation

Suffocating people in trucks has also been used as a form of punishment either through gross neglect or deliberate torture. These cases raise less public sympathy and are often buried along with the victims.

In 2009, the BBC reminded readers of the Afghanistan “convoy of death” in 2001. The blackened bodies of “surrendering pro-Taliban prisoners” in the custody of US-backed warlord Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum were found sealed in shipping containers on route from Kunduz to Sheberghan prison, “a stronghold of Gen Dostum west of Mazar-e-Sharif”. There were also accusations of shootings. BBC reported,

“many of the prisoners shrieked as they were transferred to the containers, one driver reported. They may have been aware of the fate that allegedly awaited many of them, as this method of killing had allegedly been used before in Afghanistan – a country littered with rusting container trucks previously used to transport aid.”

“It spoke to prisoners who said they had travelled in the convoy, who confirmed the drivers’ accounts.

One said they became so desperate with thirst that they began licking the sweat from each other’s bodies. Others say the captives began losing their reason and started biting each other.”

See “The Afghan ship-container ‘massacre'”

The US has so far failed to investigate despite President Obama saying he would look into this in 2009. Gen Dostum who now leads counter terrorist operations has recently denied allegations though a mass grave was allegedly located and 3 autopsies carried out. Khaama reports, “Gen. Dostum said those who accuse him of genocide are speaking on behalf of the regional spy agencies directly involved in the ongoing violence across the country” and that he “warned that the issue will be shared with the National Security Council upon his return to Kabul and those who accuse him of genocide would face prosecution for the irresponsible remarks.” It was unclear whether this included the shipping container massacre. The only way the truth will unfold is for a full inquiry to be carried out.  (Dostum has been accused of other atrocities in recent days by the Islamic Emirate, Afghan Taliban, allegedly carried out by his militia, see “Links” section).

Tak Bai incident

The Tak Bai incident also caused international outrage. Amnesty international stated that “seven (detainees) were shot dead, and a further 78 were crushed or suffocated to death in army vans transporting them to a military detention camp.”  A 2009 inquest “found that security officials had performed their duty without wrongdoing”.  Isabelle Arradon, Director of Amnesty International’s South East Asia Program said,

“it is shameful that no one has been brought to justice for these deaths, and that there is virtual impunity for other serious human rights violations in the ongoing internal armed conflict in the south”

“Unfortunately, this case highlights the serious problem of state impunity that currently prevails in the south and throughout the country.” 

Suffocation of Iraqi Prisoners

McClatchy DC covered the deaths of six Sunni Muslim detainees alleged to have suffocated in a poorly ventilated truck while in the custody of the Iraqi government. Families revealed grim tales of bodies showing signs of torture but feared retaliation for speaking out. Although an investigation committee was formed Iraqi authorities were said to be resisting calls for information.

“Families of Iraqi prisoners who suffocated in truck allege torture”

In August 2013 RT ran a report on the deaths of 36 “Islamist” prisoners in Egypt that died during transfer to Abu Zaabal prison in northern Cairo during an alleged riot. RT stated,

“Thirty-six of the prisoners died of suffocation and crowding after tear gas was used to stop their escape,” the ministry said.

See “36 Brotherhood detainees die near Cairo as Islamists attack prison convoy”

There were allegations some detainees were shot. Mada Masr reported, “later the men’s charred and swollen bodies were taken to Zeinhom morgue, where anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters assaulted journalists.”

Those checking on vehicles need to be ever more vigilant as numbers of migrants attempting to make the journey across Europe increase. Strict measures must be taken against those caught people trafficking with heavy prison sentences for anyone responsible for the deaths of migrants and prisoners.


“FACTBOX-Refugee, asylum seeker, migrant. What’s the difference?”

“Britain Has a Problem With Compassion, Not Immigration”

“General Dostum rejects massacre allegations during operations in the north”

Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights/WOT and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad . She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.



About Carol Anne Grayson

Blogging for Humanity.... Campaigner/researcher global health/human rights/drones/WOT/insurgency Exec Producer of Oscar nominated documentary Incident in New Baghdad, currently filming on drones.
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