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How to cope with the ‘migration crisis’ has indeed proved to be one of the most divisive issues that the EU has faced since the fall of Communism, even more than possible responses to the problem of Greece’s debt. It has set right-wing nationalist and populists against Pan-European humanitarians, who believe that the EU has the moral duty of hosting and integrating the refugees. If it is safe to affirm that this dichotomous debate generally goes beyond national boundaries, it is also true that the crisis has apparently fostered the ‘old/new member state’ and ‘Eastern/Western’ cleavages. For instance, when on 22 September the EU voted to distribute 120,000 asylum seekers among member states, the decision had to be forced through by a majority vote, over the sharp objections of four eastern members (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia). Three of these states (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia) plus Poland form the so-called “Visegrad Four” (V4); they are cementing a common identity and increasingly acting as a regional bloc within the EU. On 15 October, they agreed on a regional plan, not part of any of the EU's actions, to limit and control the flow of refugees. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland have agreed to send dozens of police and military officers to Hungary’s frontier with Serbia to reinforce border controls in a joint effort, which they say could serve as model for the rest of the EU. The day after, Hungary closed its borders with Croatia, sparking chaos in the Balkans, as reported by Euronews and Balkan Insight. For these governments, often sharply criticised by their citizens, rather than moral concerns, protecting and enhancing European borders should be the EU’s top priority.
With the intensifying of the ‘refugee crisis’, the notion of ‘burden-sharing’ has been increasingly present in the speech of European scholars, practitioners and journalists alike. In relation to refugees, the term has a long history, and was first used in the 1950s. The preamble to the United Nations 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states that granting asylum ‘may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries’, implying the need for ‘international cooperation’. Since then, this has been interpreted as requiring two main sorts of action. The first has been providing financial assistance for countries of asylum—usually less-developed states—to help them with the care and maintenance of refugees as a principle for promoting international solidarity among states receiving refugees. But over the past decade it has been used—or abused—by different protagonists to justify quite divergent policies: from the dispersal of asylum seekers or refugees among countries, to more recent proposals for reinforcing protection of refugees in their region of origin. Indeed, as a migration-specialised website argues, the concept has been so widely applied as to almost lose coherence.
Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti is Marie Curie Fellow Early Stage Researcher at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. She tweets @eleonoratafuro.
Cover Image: Jean Louis Théodore Géricault, La Balsa de la Medusa (1818-1819) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons