EU court says Eastern European nations cannot refuse to take asylum-seekers

The European Court of Justice says it has rejected efforts by Hungary and Slovakia to stay out of a European Union scheme meant to relocate refugees.

Bitter two-year standoff has put a chill on diplomatic effort to ease migrant crisis

The effort to relocate at least 120,000 migrants throughout the EU has stalled considerably. Hungary and Poland have refused to take part in the plan, while Slovakia has accepted a minimal number of migrants. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

The European Union's top court roundly dismissed complaints on Wednesday by Slovakia and Hungary about EU migration policy, upholding Brussels' right to force member states to take in asylum seekers.

In the latest twist to a divisive dispute that broke out two years ago when over a million migrants poured across the Mediterranean, the European Court of Justice found that the EU was entitled to order national governments to take in quotas of mainly Syrian refugees relocated from Italy and Greece.

"The court dismisses the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary against the provisional mechanism for the mandatory relocation of asylum seekers," the Luxembourg-based court said, adding it rejected the complaints "in their entirety".

"The mechanism actually contributes to enabling Greece and Italy to deal with the impact of the 2015 migration crisis and is proportionate."

The program set up by the executive European Commission was approved by majority vote of member states in the face of opposition from formerly communist countries in the east who said their societies could not absorb mainly Muslim immigrants.

It provided for the relocation of up to 120,000 people, but only some 25,000 have so far been moved. A further program for resettling people directly from outside the EU has also struggled to hit targets for taking in asylum-seekers.

Diplomats had expected the ruling and believe it may lead to resuming EU talks over an emergency mechanism for exceptionally high arrivals of refugees and migrants. The issue has been stalled for more than two years and divided the bloc at a time it faces Brexit, security threats and international challenges.

"We've been waiting for this to revive talks about the EU asylum system reform," an EU diplomat said before the ruling.

The challengers from the EU's east say the obligatory relocation of asylum-seekers arriving in frontline countries like Greece and Italy via the Mediterranean undermines their sovereignty and endangers their homogenous societies.

They have said the bloc should instead control its external borders better to crack down on illegal immigration — something Brussels says it has succeeded in doing in the past two years.