BRUSSELS – With overcrowded Greek migrant camps facing explosive new problems, a top EU legal adviser said Thursday that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic broke European Union law by refusing to comply with a refugee quota program meant to address such challenges.
The legal opinion strikes to the core of Europe's migrant crisis since 2015 — its struggle to create a unified migrant policy — a challenge that is resurfacing as Greece faces a new surge of migrant arrivals.
Advocate General Eleanor Sharpston recommended that the European Court of Justice — the EU's highest court — should rule that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland "have failed to fulfill their obligations under EU law" to take in refugees. Such legal opinions are not legally binding but are often followed by the court.
Meanwhile, Dunja Mijatovic, a commissioner for Human Rights at the Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe, was appalled after a five-day visit to migrant camps on Greek islands.
"The situation of migrants, including asylum-seekers, in the Greek Aegean islands has dramatically worsened over the past 12 months," said Mijatovic. "It is an explosive situation."
She urged Athens to address the terrible living conditions in camps, notably on the islands of Lesbos, Samos and Corinth, where people wait in line for hours to get food or use bathrooms, "when these are available."
"This no longer has anything to do with the reception of asylum-seekers," she said. "This has become a struggle for survival."
In an emergency move in 2015, EU nations agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees from Italy and Greece as those two countries buckled under the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants, most from war-torn Syria.
That decision was made in a vote requiring about a two-thirds majority. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were among a small group of countries that voted against the move. Hungary and Slovakia, citing national security concerns, even challenged the vote in court but their case was rejected.
The failure of those nations to take part in a burden-sharing measure meant to help EU partners in distress was at the heart of one of the 28-nation bloc's biggest crises. The issue of immigration then became a major vote winner for far-right parties.
Sharpston said if the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland had security or public order concerns about any of the migrants they should have rejected them on a case-by-case basis rather than ignore their entire relocation obligations. She found the EU plan contained enough safeguards to handle security concerns.
"Disregarding those obligations because, in a particular instance, they are unwelcome or unpopular is a dangerous first step toward the breakdown of the orderly and structured society governed by the rule of law," she decided, according to a court statement. "The principle of solidarity necessarily sometimes implies accepting burden-sharing."
Greece has recently begun to feel that burden more keenly. As part of its emergency response, the EU agreed in 2016 to pay Turkey up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to stop migrants leaving the country for Greece and to help Athens cope with Syrian refugee arrivals.
Yet, according to recent EU data, Greece is one of Europe's busiest entry points with more than 47,500 migrant arrivals this year through Oct. 6, a 29% increase from 2018.
Mijatovic praised Greece's plan to transfer 20,000 migrants from the islands to the mainland by the end of this year, insisting their relocation should be done urgently. Greece has received more than 2.2 billion euros ($2.4 billion) in EU assistance to help migrants.
"The Greek authorities must overcome all the bureaucratic obstacles that are hindering the effective use of these funds," Mijatovic said.
She added that the EU must provide help in "relocating people from Greece to other member states, giving Greece breathing space to make structural improvements."
Also Thursday, Greece's parliament was set to approve tough new asylum procedures despite strong opposition from international human rights groups.
Lawmakers were holding a final day of debate on the measures, which include stricter detention policies for those entering the country and seeking asylum in the European Union.
As Greece struggles yet again to cope, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland appear unmoved even though the court is very likely to find them guilty of breaking EU laws.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party urged his government "to stand up to any pressure, no matter how it is legally or otherwise disguised, on the issue of the migrant quotas."
Fidesz said people "don't want one-time migrant quotas, permanent ones, those from 2015 or those currently being formed." No new quota scheme has been announced, but the EU is urging member countries to help take in hundreds of refugees crossing the Mediterranean by boat.
Poland's government argues that it refused to take part in the refugee plan because it was faulty and raised security concerns. Spokesman Piotr Muller said the government's aim was to protect the interests of Polish citizens and defend against "uncontrolled migration."
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said his government is studying the opinion and noted that it is not legally binding. He has previously described the quota scheme as "unacceptable and divisive."
Karel Janicek in Prague, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this report.