Talks in Vienna to tackle Europe's refugee crisis received a sobering reminder of the urgency of their mission when up to 50 people were found dead in a lorry not far from their venue.

The bodies were discovered on Thursday piled on top of each other in a cargo container in a vehicle parked off the highway in Burgenland state, already partly decomposed.

There were "at least 20, but there could be as many as 40 or 50", said police spokesman Hans Peter Doskozil. 

Police said it would take at least until Friday morning before details about the victims' identities or cause of death could be revealed.

Working in collaboration with Hungarian authorities, Austrian police have launched a cross-border hunt for the missing driver, believed to be Romanian.

Initial investigations revealed the lorry had left Budapest on Wednesday morning, before being sighted near the Austrian border overnight.

'A warning'

The gruesome find came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Balkan leaders were meeting in Vienna to discuss how to tackle the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

"We were all shaken by the horrible news that up to 50 people died ... these were people coming to seek safety," Merkel said.

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"This is a warning to work to resolve this problem and show solidarity."

The conference held a minute of silence to commemorate the dead.

This year has seen record numbers of people trying to reach the EU by sea and land as they flee conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

In Austria, the number of asylum requests rose above 28,300 between January and June alone - as many as for the whole of 2014 - and officials expect the total to reach 80,000 this year.

The western Balkans conference was called to find a common European answer to the migrant influx that is overwhelming some countries while leaving others relatively unaffected.

Austrian plan

At the summit, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz floated elements of a five-point plan that foresees establishing safe havens in the refugees' home countries where those seeking asylum in the EU could be processed and - if they qualify - be given safe passage to Europe.

Beyond safe havens, possibly protected by troops acting under a UN mandate, the Austrian plan to be submitted to EU decision-makers foresees increased controls on Europe's outer borders and coordinated action against human smuggling.

It also calls for refugee quotas for each of the EU's 28 members - something that many countries have opposed.


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But EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn suggested resistance against all-EU refugee quotas is wearing down.

"We're going to have a quota settlement approach, and in light of recent developments, I believe all 28 member states are now ready to accept and approve that," he told reporters.

He suggested the influx could get worse.

"There are 20 million refugees waiting at the doorstep of Europe," he said. "Ten to 12 million in Syria, 5 million Palestinians, 2 million Ukrainians and about 1 million in the southern Caucasus," he said.

Kurz said there was no choice but to find "a European solution to this crisis".

If not, he said, individual European countries would act on their own and "endanger our European idea of open borders".

EU members Greece and Italy, and non-EU Balkan countries such as Macedonia and Serbia - whose leaders attended the summit - are dealing with the initial refugee burden through sea and land routes. But many of these refugees are only in transit to western European countries.

Hungary, which is a member of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone and has become the bloc's main entry point for migrants arriving by land along the so-called Balkans route, did not attend.

Nearly 300,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean this year with at least 2,373 migrants and refugees dying in a bid to reach Europe, nearly 300 more than the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

migrants

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies