BRUSSELS — Europe's top court has ruled that European Union member states aren't obliged to grant humanitarian visas to people who want to enter their territory to apply for asylum.
The decision announced Tuesday came after a Belgian court in October ordered the government to give humanitarian visas to a family in war-torn Syria.
The European Court of Justice ruled that allowing people to choose where to get international protection would undermine the EU system establishing which country should handle asylum applications.
It said that EU law only lays out the procedures and conditions for issuing visas to transit through or stay on the territory of a member state for up to 90 days.
But the Luxembourg-based court said member state courts remain free to rule on visas under national law.
Friends in Belgium had offered to lodge and feed the family, who lived in the besieged city of Aleppo and believed still to be in Syria.
The government fears that granting visas would open the floodgates to more applications and believes that it should be responsible for such decisions and not the courts.
Belgium's immigration minister, Theo Francken, has refused to pay a fine of 4,000 euros ($4,438) per day for defying an appeal tribunal.
Francken welcomed Tuesday's ruling, even though it changes nothing in Belgium.
"They wanted to open Europe's migratory door, for asylum, via the consulates and embassies of the member states of the European Union throughout the world," he said. "There is the possibility to request a humanitarian visa but it's the government that can decide to give it or not give it. We cannot be obliged to give one."
A lawyer representing the Syrian family, Tristan Wibault, said the ruling was not helpful as it only says that European law does not apply.
"It's very disappointing. The court chose a formalistic argument to avoid the issues in reality. The deeper questions are not analyzed," he said.
Lorne Cook, The Associated Press