ATHENS, Greece – Greek officials say the government will respect a landmark court decision against a European Union policy that allowed authorities to force refugees and migrants to stay on the Greek islands where they first arrived even after they had applied for asylum.
The country's highest administrative court, the Council of State, ruled Tuesday that migrants reaching the Greek islands who apply for asylum will be allowed to travel to the mainland while their applications are being processed. The ruling takes effect immediately.
Yiannis Balafas, a deputy migration minister, said Wednesday the decision is not retroactive but would "create a new situation" for migrants who arrive after the ruling.
Under a 2016 agreement between Turkey and the European Union, migrants who traveled to Greek islands off the Turkish coast were restricted in where they could go after that.
"For sure, this ruling will create a new situation that concerns those who arrive from now on and we will see how it will be addressed," Balafas told Sto Kokkino radio. "I don't think the 2016 agreement will collapse because of this ruling."
Asylum applications are currently being received on five Greek islands — Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos — where the EU has also sent staff to help patrol the islands, assist in policing and help process asylum claims. Reception and detention facilities on the islands are seriously overcrowded and are the scene of frequent protests.
In Brussels, EU Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said the executive body was still being briefed on the ruling but Greek authorities needed to "study and analyze the implications of this decision."
The court ruling resulted from legal action taken by the Greek Council for Refugees, an Athens-based non-governmental organization, which welcomed the news.
"The decision has limited effect regarding the time (of arrival), but it does not diminish its importance for those who argued that placing geographical limitations on asylum-seekers was the worst part of the of the EU-Turkey agreement," the group said.
Cook reported from Brussels. Follow Gatopoulos at http://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos