Earlier this month, the European Court of Justice ruled that three EU countries broke European international law when they failed to comply with refugee quotas. The judgement states that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic “failed to fulfill their obligations” pursuant to two prior European Council decisions which obliged other EU states to accept 160 000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy.

The goal of the EU redistribution plan was to alleviate the pressures facing Greece and Italy as a result of massive refugee influxes, as many flee civil war in Syria and others arrive from Pakistan, Afghanistan and West Africa. The plan assigned quotas based on specific criteria, which took into account member states’ GDP, population, unemployment rates, and past voluntary effort to host refugees.

The need for redistribution is evident. Greece has received more refugees than Spain, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus combined, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Many of them live in dire conditions, as Greek refugee camps are so overcrowded that people are being forced to live outside. As of July 2019, the Moria camp has been housing more than 18 000 refugees in a facility designed for 2 200.

Another major issue facing the country is xenophobic violence. Anti-migrant violence first peaked in certain parts of Greece in 2012, approximately three years before the European Council’s decision to implement the redistribution plan. Tensions show no sign of easing, as a recent report details the presence of anti-refugee vigilante mobs in the areas surrounding the Moria camp. The nature and frequency of attacks against asylum seekers remains alarming and has prompted Human Rights Watch to call on Greek officials to investigate the actions of their security forces. Greek border officials have used tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent asylum seekers from entering the country, and Turkey claims that live rounds have been used to kill at least three people, which Greece has denied.

The refugee crisis has also deeply affected Italy, where a revitalized far-right has emerged. Matteo Salvini, the leader of a rightist anti-migrant party, rose to power in 2018 by capitalizing on anti-refugee fears and rhetoric. As Minister of the Interior, it became common practice for Salvini’s government to turn away rescue ships filled with asylum seekers or hold them at sea for days on end. In February, the Italian Senate officially voted that Salvini will face trial for one such incident, where 116 refugees were trapped at sea for almost a week, just off the coast of Sicily.

Despite the challenges being faced by their fellow EU members, the three non-compliant states had similar obstinate responses to the redistribution agreement. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was opposed to the deal from the outset, vowing to block the plan entirely as it would have obliged Hungary to accept 1 294 refugees (out of the total of 160 000). In Poland, it was not surprising that the state failed to live up to their redistribution quota, as the rhetoric of the ruling right-wing populist party has been determinedly anti-refugee.

The Polish government has been much less opposed to non-refugees, however, as they quietly accepted large numbers of (mostly Christian) migrant workers from Ukraine, whilst blocking the redistribution plan. In the Czech Republic, a similar context of rising anti-immigrant sentiments has emerged, leading to a polarized society. Czech leaders expressed their opposition to the redistribution plan from its inception, firmly stating that they reject any notion of shared responsibility for asylum seekers within the EU. Consequently, the state failed to meet their quota of 2 691 refugees, having only accepted 12 asylum seekers when the European Commission began its infringement proceedings against the three states.

The Czech, Polish, and Hungarian refusals to comply with the emergency relocation measures have been viewed with great disdain by other EU members, especially states like Germany who accepted more than one million refugees as a result of the plan. Since the program lapsed in 2017, it is now up to the executive arm of the European Commission to determine what will happen next in light of the recent judgement confirming their breaches of international law.

In the interim, the non-compliance of these states continues to have the gravest effects on those who have no choice but to live in overcrowded refugee camps. As the global health crisis continues and social distancing is being prescribed globally, the tensions in these overpopulated camps have only increased.

Edited by Jillian Giberson.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Dolorslola00 via Wikimedia Commons