A German theatre staged a controversial protest work yesterday (2 September 2015). For the theatre piece, 71 people were crammed into the back of a small truck to highlight the plight of refugees turning to people-smugglers. While Europe has been rocked by migrant deaths in the Mediterranean – particularly young Syrian Kurdish boy Aylan Kurdi – last week the perils of the overland journey were hammered home when 71 people were found dead in an abandoned refrigerated lorry in Austria.

By asking the same number of people to climb into the back of a similar vehicle, the organiser of the controversial theatre work said he hoped to help people get a sense of how cramped and dangerous the conditions are for people desperately trying to reach western Europe. The victims found in the truck in Austria were crammed in five to a square metre, police said.

"I think anybody who has ever moved house – this is a 7.5 tonne truck, the kind you might hire from a removals firm, no bigger than that. And when you imagine trying to fit 70 people in there, it is virtually impossible," Gerald Graf, who owns a haulage firm, said. "When you hear about people being smuggled, then you think about somebody in the boot of the car or on the back sit with a blanket over them. I just didn't think it was possibly to cram 50, 60, 70 people into a lorry like animals," Graf added.

Initial forensic tests indicated the 71 people who died in the back of the truck in Austria – among them a baby girl and three other children – had suffocated. The victims are thought to be refugees from Syria or possibly Afghanistan – part of a huge wave of migrants pushing through Europe that is sorely testing the European Union's ability to cope.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing conflict in Syria and North Africa, making exhausting and dangerous journeys across land and sea trying to reach western Europe. Just one day after the 71 victims were discovered in Austria, police stopped another lorry near the German border where 26 people were crammed into a poorly ventilated storage space, including three badly dehydrated children.