Migrants, many believed to be fleeing from Afghanistan, were found dead in an abandoned truck in Bulgaria on Friday. File Photo by Tolga Bozoglu/EPA-EFE
Feb. 18 (UPI) -- United Nations officials on Saturday said they were "shocked" after 18 people, believed to be migrants from Afghanistan, were found dead in an abandoned truck in Bulgaria.
The victims included one child and were found near Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, on Friday, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement joined by the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Children's Fund.
Bulgarian authorities told the U.N. that the truck was carrying 52 people including children and that survivors were taken to hospital in Sofia in critical condition.
Bulgarian National Television reported 34 people remain hospitalized with injuries and that among them are five children.
"They were discovered in a desperate condition, lacking oxygen, wet, freezing, and hungry," the international body said.
"The U.N. agencies commend the swift actions of the relevant authorities, including the hospitals that have provided support and care for survivors."
Five people have since been arrested in connection with their deaths, Bulgarian National Television reported. According to Bulgaria's Novinite news agency, the driver and his assistant have been charged with causing death by negligence of more than one person.
European authorities have issued an arrest warrant for a sixth person, who was reported to have left the country on Friday.
The migrants were "literally crammed" into a wooden concealment chamber built into the bottom of the truck that was not well insulated or protected from exhaust fumes, national television reported.
The migrants have been determined to have died from suffocation and local news outlets have since started referring to the incident as the "coffin truck tragedy."
"It is about an organized crime group that carries out channeling by receiving migrants from the border with Turkey," Borislav Sarafov, the director of Bulgaria's National Investigative Service, told Novinite.
He said the border with Turkey "is very easily crossed with the help of a simple ladder" and that criminal groups take migrants through Bulgaria to the Serbian border.
"The exact locations of where to pick up the migrants and where to take them is received from the Telegram app by the head of the group," Sarafov said, adding that the primary destinations for the migrants are Britain, Germany and France.
The migrants generally pay about $6,500 for passage, he said.