EU's refugee relocation plan faces legal reckoning

Published 04.09.2017 23:24

The EU's top court rules Wednesday on the legality of a controversial quota scheme that Brussels launched two years ago to force member states to admit thousands of asylum seekers.

The European Court of Justice will issue its verdict on a legal challenge that Hungary and Slovakia lodged against the scheme that requires bloc members to take in Syrians and others from overstretched Greece and Italy.

The European Union approved the scheme as part of efforts to boost EU solidarity and end the chaos generated by Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

At stake is the EU's legal authority to take joint action to ease an unprecedented crisis and override opposition from a minority of member states. In this case, eastern member states rejected the plan on grounds they lack the capacity to integrate foreigners, most of them Muslim. No matter the outcome of the court case, the scheme has been troubled from the start.

EU figures show that just under 28,000 people have been relocated since a majority of member states agreed in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean asylum seekers from Italy and Greece by September this year.

Officials in Brussels have argued the scheme is legally binding on all member states, including those who voted against the quotas like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Under the plan, Hungary must admit more than 2,300 asylum seekers, while Slovakia must in the long term take in 1,400. But in June, the European Commission, the 28-nation EU executive, launched legal action against Poland and Hungary for having failed to admit any asylum seekers. It also took legal action against the Czech Republic for having stopped taking them but spared Slovakia which agreed to take a handful of them. Although it voted for it, Poland has come out strongly against the plan since a right-wing government came to power.

The EU action, which would be bolstered by a favorable ruling in Luxembourg, could see the three countries referred to the Court of Justice and given stiff financial penalties. Other EU member states have dragged their feet despite having voted for the plan.

In June, Filippo Grandi, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Refugees, called the relocation plan a "disappointment" where only a handful of countries on a wealthy continent were fulfilling their duty to asylum seekers. He singled out Greece, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Austria.

European sources have blamed the delays on governments trying to screen jihadists in the wake of terror attacks, a lack of housing and education for asylum seekers, and logistical problems.

With the relocation scheme struggling to lift off, many Syrians and others in Greece and Italy have travelled with smugglers to wealthier northern countries like Germany and Sweden.

Brussels launched the relocation scheme in September 2015, the year more than one million migrants arrived in Europe by sea. It was introduced as an exception to so-called Dublin rules under which migrants must apply for asylum in the member state where they first land. Under international and European law, countries are required to grant asylum to people fleeing war or persecution but not those classed as economic migrants.

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