The European Court of Justice has ruled that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic broke European law when they failed to give refuge to asylum seekers arriving in southern Europe, often having fled war in Syria and Iraq.
Issuing its judgment on Thursday, the ECJ said the three member states “had failed to fulfil their obligations under European Union law”.
The Czech Republic took in just 12 asylum seekers, while Hungary and Poland refused to take a single person.
The three central European countries now face possible fines for refusing to take a share of refugees, after EU leaders forced through mandatory quotas to relocate up to 160,000 asylum seekers at the height of the 2015 migration crisis.
The court rejected the legal argument that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were entitled to disregard EU law in order to maintain public safety, law and order. None of the countries had proved it was necessary to invoke that opt-out clause in the EU treaties, the court concluded.
The European commission is now entitled to embark on legal action to impose fines on the three member states.
The decision to impose mandatory quotas of asylum seekers was taken in the teeth of fierce opposition from Hungary and the Czech Republic. After the nationalist Law and Justice party was elected in October 2015, Poland joined its neighbours in opposing the scheme.
The quotas have come to be seen as one of the modern EU’s defining moments, which poisoned relations between central Europe and western member states, leaving divisions that continue to thwart a common EU asylum policy.
The previous head of the European council, Donald Tusk, said the scheme had been “divisive and ineffective”, but countries, such as Germany and Sweden, which took in large numbers of refugees, have argued it is unacceptable for member states to shirk the task of easing the strain on the most-affected EU countries.
In September 2015, EU leaders took two decisions to relocate 40,000, then 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. More than 1 million migrants and refugees arrived on Europe’s shores in 2015, triggering a political crisis that continues to haunt the union.
When the scheme closed, only 34,712 people had been relocated: 21,999 from Greece and 12,713 from Italy. The European commission claimed that the EU’s deal with Turkey meant the original number of places were no longer needed, because migrant arrivals fell sharply from March 2016.
The UN refugee agency reported last month that more than 36,000 asylum seekers were living in desperate conditions on five Greek islands in squalid camps originally designed for 5,400 people.
Greece’s minister for migration, Notis Mitarachi, told members of the European parliament’s home affairs committee on Thursday that 20 asylum seekers living at a camp near Athens had been confirmed as having coronavirus.
He said no COVID-19 cases had been confirmed on the Greek islands and urged other EU countries to take in people on the islands. (Source: The Guardian)