May 18, 2017 / 5:10 PM / 5 months ago

Poland defies EU over taking in asylum-seekers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Poland refused on Thursday to yield to pressure from the European Union to take in any asylum seekers under a relocation scheme despite an EU threat of legal action.

Under a plan agreed in 2015, the European Commission wants EU member states to each admit a quota from a total of 160,000 asylum seekers stuck in Italy and Greece. Most have fled conflicts and poverty in the Middle East and Africa.

Poland and Hungary alone have refused to admit any, citing security concerns following a spate of attacks by militant Islamists in several European countries.

“Poland’s position is consistent and clear - we oppose relocation,” Polish Justice Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told a news conference in Brussels after a meeting of EU justice and interior ministers.

“This mechanism does not only fail to solve the migration problem, it aggravates it. It encourages more waves of migrants from Africa and Asia to come, which also provides a big source of income for smugglers and people traffickers.”

CRITICISM

Blaszczak cited militant attacks in France, Belgium and Germany since late 2015 in which migrants played a role, or which involved EU citizens who became radicalized, traveled to Syria and then returned to Europe posing as migrants.

Frontline states Italy and Greece, along with wealthier west European nations such as Germany and Sweden - which have taken in large numbers of asylum seekers - have sharply criticized the refusal of Warsaw and Budapest to show solidarity, especially as the eastern nations benefit from generous EU development funds.

Critics of the conservative-nationalist government in Poland, a deeply Catholic and largely homogeneous country, say it is exploiting a wave of popular anti-migrant feeling in Europe to shirk its responsibilities.

On Tuesday the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it would decide next month on possible legal action against Poland and Hungary over the migration issue.

“There will be a letter of formal notice,” a senior official said on Thursday, describing the first step of a long procedure that may end up in court and entail financial penalties.

The dispute is aggravating an east-west divide in the EU and has stalled reforms of the bloc’s wider asylum system, which broke down as the EU took in some 1.6 million refugees and migrants who arrived across the Mediterranean in 2014-16.

Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere hoped for progress by June.

“We should concentrate on the issues where an understanding is easier to achieve: efficient procedures, quicker returns and avoiding secondary migration, maybe an agreement on a crisis mechanism,” he told reporters.

“Maybe the very difficult issue of redistribution becomes easier when we have an agreement on these other issues.”

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones

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