Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have broken European law by refusing to give asylum to asylum-seekers arriving in southern Europe, who have often fled the war in Syria and Iraq, judged the highest court in the EU.
The three central European countries are now facing fines for refusing to accept part of the refugees, after EU leaders forced through compulsory quotas to relocate up to 160,000 asylum seekers to stronger from the migration crisis of 2015.
Delivering its judgment on Thursday, the European Court of Justice declared that the three member states “had not respected their obligations under European Union law”. The Czech Republic only accepted 12 asylum seekers, while Hungary and Poland refused to take one person.
The court rejected the legal argument that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic had the right not to respect EU law in order to maintain public security, public order. None of the countries has proven that it is necessary to invoke this opt-out clause in EU treaties, the Court concluded.
The European Commission is now empowered to take legal action to impose fines on the three Member States.
The decision to impose compulsory quotas for asylum seekers was taken in the fierce opposition from Hungary and the Czech Republic. After the election of the nationalist Law and Justice party in October 2015, Poland joined forces with its neighbors to oppose the project.
Quotas have come to be seen as one of the defining moments of the modern EU, which has poisoned relations between central Europe and western member states, leaving divisions that continue to thwart a common asylum policy from the EU.
Former Head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said regime was “divisive and ineffective”, but countries like Germany and Sweden, which have hosted large numbers of refugees, have argued that it is unacceptable for member states to shirk the task of easing pressure on EU countries most affected.
In September 2015, EU leaders made two decisions to resettle 40,000 and then 120,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other EU countries. More than a million migrants and refugees arrived on European coasts in 2015, triggering a political crisis that continues to haunt the Union.
When the program closed, only 34,712 people had been relocated: 21,999 from Greece and 12,713 from Italy. The European Commission has claimed that the EU agreement with Turkey meant that the number of places of origin was no longer necessary, since the arrivals of migrants 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.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi told members of the European Parliament’s internal affairs committee on Thursday that 20 asylum seekers living in a camp near Athens have been confirmed as having coronavirus.
He said no cases had been confirmed on the Greek islands and urged other EU countries to welcome people to the islands.
Responding to widespread concern about the dirty living conditions in the camps, he said: “Some have supported the transfer of people to the mainland – that is to say from uninfected areas to the infected areas – but we we have no empty space to do this. We will need additional funds for additional spaces, but these spaces cannot be ready in a few days.
“We will warmly welcome all offers of relocation from Member States that have the capacity, because we cannot resolve this crisis instantly and on our own.”
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told MEPs that some unaccompanied children from the islands will be resettled from next week. Eight EU countries have volunteered to welcome 1,600 single children.