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European Union Court Endorses Collective Action to Help Refugees

Court ruling should encourage EU countries to relocate more asylum seekers

The entrance of the European Court of Justice is pictured in Luxembourg, January 26, 2017. Picture taken January 26, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Hold the champagne. It’s more of a sparkling water moment.

On September 6, the European Union's Court of Justice upheld the EU’s 2015 emergency plan requiring all member countries to relocate asylum seekers out of Italy and Greece, rejecting an attempt by Slovakia and Hungary to have it struck down.

The court said the temporary, mandatory plan was a reasonable step to share responsibility for asylum seekers at a time when thousands were arriving on Greek islands every day.

The ruling comes just a few weeks ahead of the plan’s formal end. It was a modest plan, designed to benefit a fraction of those arriving. Even so, it has fallen far short of its original target of 160,000 people to be relocated over a two-year period.

According to figures published this week, only 27,695 asylum seekers - 19,244 from Greece and 8,451 from Italy - have actually been relocated. Even after quotas were reduced, this is less than one-third of the overall goal. Only a handful of EU countries are on track to fulfil their obligations under the plan; most have relocated far fewer than required. Hungary and Poland, which backed the legal challenge to the plan, have not relocated a single person.

The court’s endorsement of the validity of a shared approach by EU member states to hosting and processing asylum seekers should help with tough negotiations ahead on creating a permanent relocation mechanism as well as fundamentally reforming EU asylum rules—particularly the Dublin Regulation—that place disproportionate pressure on member states at the EU's external borders that see most irregular arrivals.

At the very least, the ruling should encourage all EU governments to pledge more places and move quickly to relocate asylum seekers, including on the basis of broader eligibility criteria. Better still would be if EU governments took it as a signal to roll up their sleeves and agree a permanent scheme consistent with European values. 

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