STEINACH AM BRENNER/Austria (Reuters) - Austrian police have started searching freight trains travelling from Italy at night to tackle illegal migration and avert further deaths after two stowaways died earlier this month.
A man and a woman from Eritrea who had hidden on a train bringing trucks from Italy were crushed to death in Austria’s Tyrol province, likely having lost consciousness due to freezing winter temperatures.
Since early November, police have picked up about 90 African migrants heading for Germany on railways in Tyrol, which are used by most cargo trains going from Italy across the Alps.
Austrian police found 71 dead migrants locked into a lorry in August 2015, and many officials fear another disaster.
“Illegal migrants always try to scout out new ways to get north. We have reacted to this phenomenon of freight train stowaways and intensified controls” said Manfred Dummer from Tyrol police about the new search regime that started this week.
Police stop and search all goods trains coming from Italy between 2200-0600 local time in the shadows of the ski slopes of the sleepy border town of Steinach, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) closer to Italy than Woergl, where the two migrants died.
“Every kilometre that they’re not on the train at these temperatures is vital,” Dummer said.
With temperatures of minus 4 degrees Celsius (24.8 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight, about 10 policemen and rail security officers in Steinach train station carefully searched about 10 freight trains, some of which were about 600 meters (1,970 feet) long.
Austria championed the de facto closing this spring of the Balkan route which hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war, violence and destruction in the Middle East and Afghanistan used to reach western Europe last year.
Countries such as Macedonia and Hungary have strongly tightened controls of road traffic and green border regions or have erected fences.
This, and a deal the European Union reached with Turkey to stem the flow, have resulted in more and more people resorting to travelling across the Mediterranean in flimsy boats to reach Italy. Most of them want to go north to Austria, Germany or Scandinavian countries -- some as stowaways on freight trains.
Gerald Tatzgern, who heads the anti-human trafficking unit at the Interior Ministry, says police pick up about 100 to 150 illegal immigrants a day in Austria.
The majority of those are found on passenger and freight trains. Tatzgern singled out Bulgaria and Serbia as hubs for traffickers smuggling Afghans between cargo on trains, sometimes in groups of up to 30 people in one wagon.
Last month, one migrant died from an electric shock received after climbing on the roof of a truck transported on a train in Austria’s Styria province.
In another recent case, a group of people had been locked into a freight train wagon in Turkey and were found barely alive in Austria. “They had very little water left, it was tight,” Tatzgern said.
“We avoid catastrophes on a daily basis.”
Editing by Helen Popper