North Carolina Journal of International Law

"Connecting North Carolina to the World of International Law"

The European Union and the Refugee Crisis: How conservative countries will force a failure of the quota system

By: Leah Kaiser








The European Union (EU) has been experiencing an influx of refugees at unprecedented levels over the past couple of years.[1]  The EU has responded to the refugee crisis by implementing a range of strategies. Perhaps one of the least successful and most controversial measures has been the mandatory relocation quota system in which EU member states are required to accept target numbers of migrants for relocation. This program has been met with fierce opposition by Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.[2]  These countries have refused to accept migrants under the quota system and have remained steadfast in their refusal, despite a recent EU court ruling upholding the quota system. The EU should allow the relocation program to expire this month rather than pursue the additional litigation likely required to force these countries to fulfill their obligations. Forcing these countries to fulfill their obligations may ultimately be unsuccessful and would likely result in creating hostile relocation places for refugees because of the current conservative political agendas present in these countries.

The Crisis

In 2015, Europe began to experience a flood of refugees. This influx of people would grow to become the largest mass movement of people since the Second World War.[3]  More than 1 million people fleeing persecution or poverty in their home countries have migrated to the EU.[4]  There are many reasons that the migration to Europe has grown so large in scale.[5]  First and foremost is the war in Syria.[6]  There is no end in sight to the war, which has already claimed more than 250,000 lives over the course of four years.[7]  This war has led to a significant increase in the number of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe.[8]

Second, the route to Europe became significantly easier when Macedonia weakened measures designed to prevent refugees from entering Europe through the Balkans.[9]  The route through the Balkans is significantly shorter, which means that it is cheaper and more affordable for those seeking to pay smugglers for passage.[10]  Third, border states also saw a substantial increase in migrants after German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a policy to allow for temporary residency for all refugees arriving in Germany.[11]

Fourth, the Syrian government  began to enlist reservists in the army in a mandatory conscription drive which, when combined with the Syrian’s governments seemingly indifferent approach to its citizens fleeing, gave people additional reasons and avenues to migrate to Europe.[12]  Finally, the poor quality of life of those who had already fled Syria to its neighboring countries has encouraged the flow of migration to Europe for many who are feeling economic hardship.[13]  These are just some of the reasons why Europe is currently facing one of the worst refugees crises the world has ever seen.

Europe’s Response: The Quota System

            The EU has a “legal and moral obligation” to protect those in need, which in this case means evaluating asylum applications and working towards providing protection to those who qualify.[14]  In order to meet its obligations, the EU has developed several different strategies to respond to the growing refugee crisis.[15]  The EU has worked with member states to strengthen borders and provide aid.[16]  For example, the EU has entered an agreement with Turkey designed to help alleviate pressure from refugees on the Greek Islands.[17]  However, in 2015, the number of migrants continued to swell, and the EU determined it needed to take additional action to meet the rising demand. At its meeting in June 2015, the European Council took the first steps towards initiating a new program to respond to the growing crisis.[18]  This program included three key objectives, most notably of which was relocation and resettlement.[19]  This initiative would develop into a quota system marking the first time an “attempt had been made to agree [to] quotas across the EU.”[20]

On September 22, 2015. the Commission’s proposal to relocate 120,000 applicants through a mandatory quota system was adopted by the Council by a qualified majority.[21]  The proposal laid out specific targets concerning the number of refugees to be relocated including the country they are currently in as well as the member countries responsible for receiving the relocated persons.[22]  Four member countries voted against the proposal: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. These four countries expressed resentment at the proposal, which they perceived as western bullying, and the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, went as far as to state that “[a]s long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory”.[23]

            Since the proposal became effective, a little over 27,000 refugees have been relocated under the plan, with a majority of the refugees being relocated out of Greece.[24]  However, the aforementioned countries that voted against the proposal have frustrated the plan’s goals by refusing to accept their required numbers of refugees and in some cases refusing to accept any refugees at all. Poland, while initially in support of the proposal has joined the bloc countries in refusing to implement the plan after the conservative Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015.[25]  Hungary and Poland have failed to relocate a single person and there have been no offers of relocation from the Czech Republic for over a year.[26]  The Czech Republic has accepted only twelve people[27] while Slovakia has accepted a mere nine refugees.[28]  Although Romania has done somewhat better, accepting 463 of its allocated 6,205[29] refugees that is less than fifteen percent of the target amount.  Hungary is indicative of the general trend and under the proposed scheme was supposed to accept 1,294 refugees[30] but instead has accepted none.

Although these countries stand out in their blatant opposition to the program, almost no EU member states have actually achieved their relocation targets.[31]  Countries have failed to meet their relocation targets for a number of reasons, including both logistical reasons, such as a lack of appropriate housing and available flights, as well as political ones.[32]  Additionally, some countries are prioritizing smaller families or individuals with professional skills while others are simply refusing to accommodate certain religions.[33]  For example Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, put it simply by stating that Hungarians “do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country”.[34]

In response to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic’s refusal to accept refugees under the relocation program, the EU initiated infringement proceedings against them in June.[35]  Infringement proceedings constitute the first step towards punitive measures for countries that fail to fulfill their obligations under EU treaties.[36]  Although infringement proceedings can lead to a referral to the Court of Justice, this is rare because  Member States comply with their obligations before referral in about 95% of infringement proceedings.[37]

Instead of fulfilling their obligations, Hungary and Slovakia, supported by Poland, filed suit seeking an annulment of the Council Decision concerning the quota system.[38]  This suit constitutes another failed attempt by those countries to have their relocation responsibility legally voided.  On September 6, 2017, the European Court of Justice “dismissed in its entirety the actions brought by Slovakia and Hungary.”[39]  The ruling came as an important victory for several member states including Germany whose foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said the ruling was “explicitly clear” in requiring all European Members to fulfill their obligations.[40]  Furthermore, Mr. Gabriel said “we . . . can also expect that all European partners will uphold the ruling and the [sic] carry out the decision without further delay”.[41]  British home secretary Theresa May stated that “we need, as Europe, to get on with the job.”[42]  Although the ruling reiterated Hungary’s and Slovakia’s obligation to accept migrants under the quota system, it seems unlikely that it will be that easy.

In response to the court’s decision, the Hungarian minister of foreign affairs and trade, Peter Szijjarto, said “the real battle is only just beginning” referring to the ruling as “outrageous and irresponsible.”[43]  He remained adamant that no one would be relocated to Hungary without their consent.[44]  Hungary is by far the most outspoken opponent of the quota system but it is also supported by Poland.[45]  Slovakia has softened its language somewhat, indicating that it fully respects the Court’s verdict but maintains the opinion “that the so-called relocation compulsory quotas failed to work in real life”.[46]  After the ruling, the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, urged Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to “drop their refusal to accept relocated migrants” and to show “solidarity” with Greece and Italy.[47]  Mr. Avramopoulos also made threats indicating that the EU would go back to court and seek punitive action if these countries continued to defy the immigration policy.[48]

Accepting Defeat

It is unlikely that either Hungary or Poland will be swayed or intimated by either the court’s ruling or Mr. Avramopoulos’s threats as is demonstrated by their defiant rhetoric in response to the Court’s ruling. Hungary’s position is that only its elected leaders have the power to determine who is allowed in the country, and, furthermore, a significant number of Muslim immigrants would threaten Hungary’s cultural identity.[49]  Hungary’s divisive language on the subject further indicates an absolute unwillingness to comply with the quota system.[50]  As a result, the EU should allow the program to expire on its official expiration date of September 26th[51]  because the program has been only minimally successful in regard to the number of refugees that have been relocated thus far and an attempt to force Hungary and Poland to accept their allocated number of refugees will likely only be met with additional opposition and defiance.

The rhetoric coming out of Hungary and Poland make it clear that it’s unlikely either country will change their position.  Overall Europe appears to be reacting to the refugee crisis with increasingly conservative and divisive policies, which may encourage still more countries to stand with Hungary and Poland in their refusal to implement the quota system. Furthermore, the experiences of refugees forced to relocate to Romania are proof of the hardship that is caused by forcing relocations.  Refugees relocated to Romania are faced with limited government support and employment system that prioritizes speaking Romanian.[52]  It is an especially difficult path,[53]  even among the many disadvantages that refugees already face.  Since 1991 at least half of Romania’s refugees have chosen to leave the country[54] suggesting dire circumstances for refugees relocated to Romania.

The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, is the leader of the conservative Hungarian Civic Party, and more than two years ago Orbán gave what was considered to be “the most significant radical right speech in Europe of the past decades.”[55] Orbán has encouraged the building of “work camps” for immigrants and supported building a fence with Serbia to keep migrants out.[56]  Poland, on the other hand, is currently governed by the Law and Justice Party, which is a right-wing nationalist party that has been associated with political figures that linked refugees to the emergence of dangerous diseases.[57]  Even if the EU was able to force Hungary and Poland to accept their allocated migrants, these migrants would likely find themselves in hostile and potentially dangerous countries. Instead of attempting to force migrants into unsuitable and potentially dangerous situations the EU should let the quota program expire and instead pursue other more effective strategies to the refugee crisis such as increased efforts to provide at-risk populations with protection and assistance in their own countries.[58]


[1] The EU and the Refugee Crisis, (July 2016), [] [hereinafter Refugee Crisis].

[2] See Case C-643/15 & C-647/15, Slovak Republic v. Council, 2017 E.C.R; Jennifer Rankin, EU Court Dismisses Complaints by Hungary and Slovakia Over Refugee Quotas, The Guardian (Sept. 6, 2017), [].

[3] Liz Sly, 8 Reasons Europe’s Refugee Crisis is Happening Now, The Washington Post (Sept. 18, 2015), [].

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Sly, supra note 3.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] See id.

[14] Refugee Crisis, supra note 1.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] Case C-643/15 & C-647/15, Slovak Republic v. Council, 2017 E.C.R (I)(A)(7).

[19] Id.

[20] Ian Traynor & Patrick Kingsley, EU Governments Push Through Divisive Deal to Share 120,000 Refugees, The Guardian (Sept. 15, 2017), [].

[21] Case C-643/15 & C-647/15, Slovak Republic v. Council, 2017 E.C.R (I)(B)(11).

[22] Id. at (I)(C)(44).

[23] Traynor, supra note 20.

[24] Rankin, supra note 2.

[25] Lili Bayer, Hungary Says Refugee Ruling ‘raped’ EU Law, Politico (Sept. 6, 2017), [].

[26] Rankin, supra note 2.

[27] Bayer, supra note 25.

[28] Jennifer Rankin, EU met only 5% of Target for Relocating Refugees from Greece and Italy, The Guardian (Dec. 8, 2016), [].

[29] Frederik Johannisson, Refugees Relocated by E.U. Struggle to Get by in Romania, News Deeply (Dec. 1, 2016), [].

[30] Bayer, supra note 25.

[31] James Kanter, E.U. Countries Must Accept Their Share of Migrants, Court Rules, N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2017), [].

[32] Jon Henley, EU Refugee Relocation Scheme is Inadequate and Will Continue to Fail, The Guardian (March 4, 2016), [].

[33] See id.

[34] Id.

[35] Bayer, supra note 25.

[36] European Commission Memo 12/12, Infringements: Frequently Asked Questions (Jan. 17, 2012).

[37] Id.

[38] Case C-643/15 & C-647/15, Slovak Republic v. Council, 2017 E.C.R.

[39] Pablo Gorondi & Lorne Cook, EU Court Rejects Hungary, Slovakia Appeal in Refugee Case, USA Today (Sept. 6, 2017), [].

[40] Kanter, supra note 31.

[41] Id.

[42] Traynor, supra note 20.

[43] Kanter, supra note 31.

[44] Id.

[45] Bayer, supra note 24.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Gorondi, supra note 39.

[50] See Bayer, supra note 25.

[51] Kanter, supra note 31.

[52] Johannisson, supra note 29.

[53] See id.

[54] Id.

[55] Cas Mudde, Is Hungary Run by the Radical Right?, Washington Post (Aug. 10 2015), [].

[56] Id.

[57] See James Traub, The Party That Wants to Make Poland Great Again, N.Y. Times Magazine (Nov. 2, 2016), [].

[58] Khalid Koser, 5 Long-term Solutions to Europe’s Refugee Crisis, World Economic Forum (Apr. 23 2015), [].

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *