BRUSSELS — The European Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had violated their obligations by refusing to take in their fair share of asylum seekers at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015.
The court’s ruling, which is final, said that the three Eastern European countries had failed to live up to their end of a European Union agreement to distribute 160,000 asylum seekers who had made their way to Greece and Italy, which are on the European external borders. The countries were struggling at the time to cope with the large numbers arriving from war zones and fleeing poverty.
The crisis threatened to upend the core of the European Union, fueled the rise of the far right and moved many countries’ governments to the more conservative end of the spectrum.
The three countries’ refusal to participate in the relocation scheme, an emergency measure put in place to help Greece and Italy and intended to make the distribution of new arrivals more equitable, was viewed by some other European Union countries as particularly offensive.
It marked a bloc of resistance to communally agreed policies — especially in relocating and hosting migrants and refugees in Eastern Europe — and created a new fault line in European Union politics.
The relocation program lapsed in 2017, so there’s no practical way to make Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic take in more asylum seekers now. It is up to the European Commission to decide what to do next, the court said, referring to the executive arm of the European Union.
Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, said the court decision was an important ruling, “referring to the past, but giving us guidance for the future.” Ms. von der Leyen said the commission was working on a new migration pact, which would outline the responsibilities of the European countries, but she did not mention any specific action regarding the three countries.
“While history has proved us right, Hungary was, nonetheless, taken to court,” the country’s justice minister, Judit Varga, said in a statement. “This is especially shocking in the light of the fact that almost none of the member states have fully implemented the 2015 ‘quota decisions,’” Ms. Varga added, referring to the failed quota system distributing asylum seekers to different European countries.
Ms. Varga said that Hungary now had “no obligation to take in asylum seekers,” declaring on Twitter that the E.U.’s “compulsory relocation system of migrants is dead and today’s #CJEU judgement won’t change that.”
The Polish government said in a statement: “The refusal to comply with the relocation mechanism was dictated by the need to protect Poland’s internal security and defend it against uncontrolled migration. The most important goal of government policy is to ensure the safety of our citizens.”
The Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, said in response to the ruling: “We lost the case; it is not that important. Important is that we do not have to pay anything. The commission only applies refunds for the proceedings.”
“It is essential that we will not accept any migrants and that, meanwhile, the quota system was canceled,” he added. “And that is mainly thanks to us.”
The nationalist governments of the three countries previously cited national security reasons in refusing to take in any of the refugees and migrants. Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, for example, vowed to block the European Union program to resettle migrants from Africa and the Middle East, saying that it was important to secure his nation’s borders from the mainly Muslim migrants “to keep Europe Christian.”
Earlier this week, Mr. Orban came under severe criticism because of a raft of measures that were introduced ostensibly to combat the coronavirus but that effectively suspended the democratic process in Hungary.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Ms. von der Leyen said she was “concerned that certain measures go too far,” and “particularly concerned about the situation in Hungary.”
“These emergency measures have to be limited to what is necessary,” she said. “They have to be strictly proportionate because they have to be adequate in this situation. They should not last indefinitely and, very importantly, they should be subject to regular scrutiny.”
Laying out the violations affecting refugees, the European court, based in Luxembourg, noted that, “Poland indicated that 100 persons could be swiftly relocated to its territory. However, it did not relocate those persons and it did not make any subsequent relocation commitment.”
It said that Hungary did not even indicate a number of people to take in and that the Czech Republic took in only 12 asylum seekers from Greece, even thought it had said it would accept 50.
Germany, in contrast, took in nearly one million asylum seekers, while other major European countries complied with the policy.
Greece, which is a small fraction of the size of Poland and roughly the same size as Hungary, saw more than a million migrants arrive during the 2015-16 crisis. It now hosts more than 100,000 people in camps, most of which are completely overrun and overcrowded.
The United Nations’ refugee agency estimates that 112,300 asylum seekers and refugees are currently in Greece, including 41,100 on Greek islands and 71,200 on the mainland. Of those on the islands, 36,219 asylum seekers are in five reception centers designed for a total of 5,400. The majority are families, and over one-third are children, most below the age of 12.
Benjamin Novak contributed reporting from Budapest, Joanna Berendt from Warsaw and Hana de Goeij from Prague.