Athens, Greece – Rights groups and watchdogs have expressed concern over several countries’ proposals to return asylum seekers to Greece as several European leaders call for refugee routes to be closed.
On Thursday, it was reported that Italy, Germany and Austria are expected to hold talks to seal the southern refugee route, while Germany’s interior minister and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban separately called for returning more asylum seekers to Italy and Greece.
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“We agreed … that next week there will be a meeting of the German, Austrian and Italian interior ministers with the goal of taking measures to shut the Mediterranean route into Europe, to make sure that illegal immigration to Europe on this route is stopped,” Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a press conference.
According to European Union rules, asylum seekers must apply for protection in the first country they enter. For the majority, the first ports of entry are in Greece and Italy.
In Greece, however, rights groups and observers say refugee camps are already overcrowded.
Eva Cosse, a Greece-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, explained that overcrowding was common in camps on both Greece’s mainland and on several Aegean islands.
“Many asylum seekers are homeless on the streets of Athens and other big cities, and there are unaccompanied children with no access to accommodation,” she told Al Jazeera.
Explaining that some 17,000 refugees and migrants have congregated on the Greek islands, she added: “Most of the camps on the mainland are also full or over capacity.”
Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR echoed those concerns.
“Conditions have deteriorated, and the sweltering July heat is adding to the misfortune of thousands of people, including pregnant women, newborn babies and families with young children,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The capacity of services is stretched beyond capacity, including primary health and psychosocial assistance,” Cheshirkov added.
Tensions between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer have sown uncertainty over the future of the governing coalition.
In extracts from a Der Spiegel interview with Seehofer published on Friday, the interior minister said Germany would have to take unilateral action if an agreement was not reached with other EU countries.
His comments came two days after Merkel defended her government’s refugee policy while urging “more regulation regarding every type of migration” and European cooperation.
Speaking to parliament, Merkel defended plans to create transit centres on the country’s border with Austria to speed up the deportation of rejected asylum seekers.
That address came two days after Merkel and Seehofer reached a compromise on Monday, causing the latter to rescind threats to resign over migration policies.
These plans sparked concern in Austria, where a coalition government includes the right-wing Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party.
Earlier this week, the Austrian government announced its intention to “take measures” to “protect” its southern borders after Seehofer advocated stricter measures on the Germany-Austria frontier.
On July 1, Austria took over the EU rotating presidency for a six-month term.
Headed by Kurz, Austria aims to tighten border controls and stem the flow of refugees and migrants during its EU presidency.
Meanwhile, Italy’s new far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has called for quicker processing of asylum applications in order to speed up deportations.
Salvini also promised to put a stop to boats carrying refugees and migrants to Italy from North Africa.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Salvini, leader of the far-right League party (formerly the Northern League), said only “pregnant women, children and refugees” should be allowed to remain in Italy.
Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister, added: “Protection is reserved for humanitarian cases.”
“If we don’t block the flows from the south, it is a problem for everyone, so I hope next Thursday to awaken Europe’s conscience on the need to intervene urgently,” he added, referring to an upcoming meeting of interior members from Italy, Austria and Germany.
In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, the Rome-based Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration said “the dangers and risk of death [will] inevitably increase” if people have less legal channels to reach Europe.
“European states should ensure regular [means of] entry in order to develop integration policies,” the statement added.
According to UNHCR statistics, 16,739 refugees and migrants have reached Italy so far this year, while some 13,749 have arrived on Greek shores.
An estimated 1,408 people have died or gone missing at sea.
Despite the uptick in anti-refugee sentiment among European leaders and a flurry of moves to block migration routes, the number of arrivals pales in comparison to the height of the crisis.
In 2015, the year the refugee crisis erupted in Europe, more than a million people crossed the Mediterranean to reach the continent.