Police have found 41 people alive in the back of a refrigerated truck during a routine highway check in northern Greece, officials said Monday.
The refrigeration system had not been turned on and the migrants, all men and boys, were uninjured, Theodoros Hronopoulos, a police spokesman, told CNN.
A small number of the migrants were taken to a nearby hospital for precautionary reasons, while the rest were taken directly to a nearby police station for identification.
A Georgian truck driver, 40, was arrested, police said. Routine checks on trucks and other vehicles have increased lately, following a number of incidents involving migrants being smuggled through Greece in the back of vehicles.
Greek newspapers drew parallels between Monday’s incident and a more grisly one last month in England, when 39 migrants, all of them believed to be Vietnamese, were found dead in the back of a truck 20 miles outside of London.
Controversial law passed
Greece is currently struggling to deal with the biggest number of migrant and refugee arrivals since 2015, when more than a million people crossed into Europe from Turkey via Greece.
An estimated 35,000 people, including many families with young children, are stuck in hugely overcrowded camps on the Greek islands, the Greek Civil Protection Ministry says. The vast majority of them are trapped in asylum limbo and living in conditions that Europe’s human rights watchdog last week described as “abysmal.”
Paying a visit to Greek island camps, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, described the situation as “explosive.”
The commissioner said: “There is a desperate lack of medical care and sanitation in the vastly overcrowded camps I have visited. People queue for hours to get food and to go to the bathroom, when these are available.” She urged for measures to be taken to improve conditions.
Greece has just passed a controversial law that shortens the asylum process by cutting out some options for appeal. It also makes it easier to deport those rejected.
The change in legislation was brought forward by Greece’s conservative government, elected in July. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has repeatedly asked for a cohesive policy from its European Union partners and an equitable distribution.
There is currently a backlog of 68,000 asylum requests, said Greek Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrisohoidis, adding that claimants have to sometimes wait for years before receiving a reply.
Chrisohoidis said that under the new asylum law, requests will be handled within 60 days.
Human rights groups have voiced strong concern that the new law will restrict access to international protection for vulnerable people and pointed out that it may also lead to a new surge in people trying to cross through Greece illegally in an attempt to completely bypass the country’s asylum system.