Can Europe Make It?

Sharing responsibility for refugees in Europe: the logic of identity

Values such as ‘shared responsibility’ that define the EU on paper do not appear to be powerful in practice. But across Europe national identities are a different matter. 

Katharine T. Weatherhead
18 August 2016

Affinity? Poland’s former PM Ewa Kopacz telling lawmakers that 80 out of 160 Christian refugees from Syria that Poland had recently taken in, had left for the West, September, 2015. Czarek Sokolowski / Press Association. All rights reserved.The global refugee regime contains no set of legal rules requiring a fair distribution of refugees between states during a crisis or otherwise. Although the preamble of the 1951 Convention on Refugee Status recognises the need for international cooperation, there is no permanent mechanism to enforce the sharing of responsibility for receiving refugees.

Considering this lack of strong legal obligation, the conditions under which states engage in responsibility-sharing have long been subject to examination by scholars. Some emphasise that states undertake cost-benefit calculations on a case-by-case basis, where the political and economic consequences of receiving refugees determine a state’s willingness to cooperate in responsibility-sharing. Others instead claim that international norms guide state decision-making and influence whether a state finds it appropriate to cooperate in a given situation.

In this article, I consider a further factor which is neglected in analyses of responsibility-sharing for refugees: state identity. By ‘identity’, I mean broadly a state’s self-definition. Using examples of refugee crises in Europe, I suggest that it is worthwhile considering whether state identity shapes responsibility-sharing. My aim is to highlight an interesting avenue for further exploration.


One aspect of state identity that could facilitate selective responsibility-sharing is a state’s affinity with a specific group of refugees. To talk of ‘affinity’ in this context is to talk of a particular likeness between the refugees and the individuals who make up a host state. The principle of affinity suggests that nations are more likely to cooperate in responsibility-sharing when the refugees are similar to their citizens.

European responsibility-sharing that followed the Kosovo crisis in the late 1990s is one example. In collaboration with European and other states, notably the USA, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration put in place a Humanitarian Evacuation Programme (HEP) which temporarily relocated almost 96,000 refugees from the FYR of Macedonia. Matthew Gibney suggests that “[w]hat made the Kosovans popular refugees was the ability of Westerners to see themselves – and their families, friends and neighbours – in the Kosovans’ suffering”. In contrast, he notes that “[m]ost African refugees are enigmatic to Europeans. The lives they lead are perceived as alien”. The coordinated relocation of Kosovan refugees under the HEP scheme contrasts with the poor record of western states participating in responsibility-sharing for refugees coming from African states, for instance.

Could political opposition to the European Union’s current efforts in relocating 160,000 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees, from ‘frontline’ states Italy and Greece to other member states, be a result of a lack of affinity with refugees? In December 2015, Slovakia and Hungary went so far as to make submissions to the Court of Justice of the European Union which challenge the validity of the mandatory relocation quotas. Moreover, the European Commission has consistently highlighted the lack of implementation of the relocation initiative. In its report of May 2016, the Commission stressed that “progress on relocation… has been unsatisfactory. The Commission had set a target to relocate at least 20,000 persons by mid-May in its First Report on Relocation and Resettlement. The reality falls well short of this target…”. Its latest report, published in July 2016, records that the total number of persons relocated amounts to just 3,056.

A number of important factors can help explain resistance to responsibility-sharing. Not least of all, immigration and asylum policies tend to be controversial due to their popular association with state sovereignty. This linkage was evident in the Brexit debates, particularly clearly in the UKIP poster which showed a line of migrants and refugees alongside the caption: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders”. But affinity between states and refugees may also play a role. As Alexander Betts points out, “[w]ith the current influx of refugees in Europe, the Visigrád states—Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Poland—have expressed a strong preference for taking Christian refugees.” Affinity should therefore be considered as a potential factor influencing responsibility-sharing.

In suggesting that ethnicity and culture may condition state cooperation in receiving refugees, the intention is not to be essentialist. The point is simply to acknowledge that perceptions of ethnic or cultural affinity by states when considering certain groups of refugees could impact on cooperation.


While affinity could facilitate a selective openness to receiving certain groups of refugees, other aspects of a state’s identity could facilitate a general openness to hosting refugees. States may be open to responsibility-sharing if they hold values which support cooperation in international refugee protection.

We may view Germany’s behaviour during the current refugee crisis as an example of national values facilitating a general openness to sharing responsibility for refugee protection. In August 2015, Germany announced that it would not transfer Syrian refugees back to the states through which they first entered the EU as would otherwise be required under the Dublin system. Instead, it would assume responsibility for their protection. Chancellor Angela Merkel framed the country’s openness to refugees as one which stemmed from its value of friendliness, with the BBC reporting that she stated: “If Germany can't show a friendly face in an emergency situation, then it's not my country”. Commentators further note that Merkel put a historical slant on German hospitality and stated that she was “happy that Germany has become a country that many people outside of Germany now associate with hope.”

Of course, values such as those of ‘friendliness’ are not prominent in all of Germany’s policies. Despite its generous early position in the crisis, Germany was a key player in negotiating the EU-Turkey deal, a deal which is criticised by human rights organisations as harmful to individuals returned from Greece to Turkey after having irregularly entered the EU. Yet the country’s value-based reasons for welcoming refugees during the initial stages of the crisis remain important to explore, especially when one considers that Germany hosts a large proportion of all the refugees in the EU. As Eurostat reports, in 2015, “the highest number of first time [asylum] applicants was registered in Germany (with 441 800 first time applicants, or 35% of all first time applicants in the EU Member States)”.

Moving to the international level, are the EU’s responsibility-sharing initiatives in the ongoing refugee crisis an attempt to develop and operationalise common European values? Values that shape the EU’s self-definition are enshrined in the EU’s founding treaties. For instance, Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union states: “The Union's action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement…: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law”. These values are reflected in policy documents aiming to manage the refugee crisis. The European Agenda on Migration asserts that “[u]pholding our international commitments and values while securing our borders and at the same time creating the right conditions for Europe's economic prosperity and societal cohesion is a difficult balancing act… We need to restore confidence in our ability…to meet our international and ethical obligations and to work together in an effective way, in accordance with the principles of solidarity and shared responsibility”.

Such references to ‘ethical obligations’ and ‘solidarity’ imply that EU member states share certain values that shape their interaction and their response to refugee arrivals. However, as illustrated by state reluctance to relocate persons in need of international protection, values such as ‘shared responsibility’ that define the EU on paper do not appear to be powerful in practice. Instead, the President of the European Commission complains that “we have full-time Europeans when it comes to take. And we have part-time Europeans when it comes to give”.


To sum up this brief analysis, state identity may impact upon cooperation in the fair distribution of refugees. The logic of identity holds the potential to broaden our understanding of the conditions for responsibility-sharing. Furthermore, it does not exclude consideration of other influential factors such as cost-benefit calculations and international norms. The logic of identity simply draws attention to alternative factors which may also influence state cooperation, namely national or regional values and affinity with refugees.

Although prominent scholars, mentioned above, recognise that identity may impact on state action towards refugees, there remains a lack of systematic and comprehensive research in this area. An in-depth study of how state identity shapes cooperation in hosting refugees may put us in a stronger position to facilitate responsibility-sharing for refugee protection in the future.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData