According to the Geneva Convention, the EU is responsible for people who need international protection. The Dublin Regulation, which is part of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS), establishes that the first country a refugee enters is responsible for processing his or her asylum application. This system has proven problematic over recent years. Since the European refugee crisis reached its peak in 2015, the necessity of reforming the Dublin Regulation in the spirit of burden-sharing has become clearer than ever. Burden-sharing involves states taking on responsibility for refugees of other states. For example, countries facing less immigration pressure, such as Romania and Poland, would accept a certain quota of asylum-seekers from countries that receive the most migrants, such as Italy and Greece.
This paper will focus on Italy and Romania, two EU states that are affected by the refugee crisis in vastly different ways. While Italy faces an excessive burden of asylum applications, Romania has hardly been impacted by the migrant crisis. Anti-immigration forms the core of both Italian and Romanian perceptions of the crisis; however, their different approaches to burden-sharing represent a broader schism that challenges EU solidarity. This makes the two states useful empirical cases to compare and contrast.
Because Italy is a frequent first entry point for migrants, its politics revolves extensively around the migration crisis. Former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, for instance, gained popularity through his promise of anti-migration policies, claiming that Italy is incapable of sustaining an annual expenditure of €5 billion on migrant reception. Under the legal framework of the Dublin Regulation, Salvini banned rescue ships from docking in Italian ports. If the Dublin Regulation did not require Italy, as the first point of entry, to process asylum applications, this situation would not have materialized. Salvini’s policy drastically reduced migrant arrivals from 181,000 in 2016 to 3,071 in 2019. However, Italy recently underwent a shift in power, which resulted in more inclusive immigration policies pursued by Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S), which re-opened ports on the condition of redistributing 25% of the migrants within France and Germany. Nonetheless, European election results suggest that Salvini is still extremely popular in Italy.
According to a recent survey, 54% of Italians believe that migrants are a burden to their society. Much of this dislike is propagated by the Italian media, which entrenches damaging cultural stereotypes and help build cultural boundaries within Italian society. According to a study analyzing nine Italian newspapers, the word ‘migrant’ always conveys a negative connotation, positioning refugees as marginalized individuals, for example as protagonists of crime stories.
As an example, the article ‘The journey on the trains of terror where immigrants rule’ details an 18-year-old girl’s daily journey home. In her experience, groups of migrants are disruptive, intimidating and often harass travellers. She adds that they treat the carriages as their “home”, littering the train with food waste and paper wraps and trying to avoid the ticket inspector at any cost. Stories such as these create insecurities about migrants in society. Surveys shows that 58% of Italians are afraid of immigration and over 60% do not feel safe in the city they live in. Salvini’s decision to block migrant arrivals thus directly mirrors public sentiment. If the state did not have to accommodate as many migrants, the public would likely be more accepting of immigration; additionally, the reduced burden would enable more effective integration and an increased allocation of resources. This could potentially improve the portrayal of migrants in Italian newspapers, leading to greater public acceptance. Thus, it is clear that burden-sharing initiatives are attractive for Italian society and government.
Romania views burden-sharing from a different angle, as the refugee crisis has had no significant domestic impact there. Fears that Romania would become a ‘backdoor’ for migrants to enter the EU have failed to materialise. However, Romanian citizens view this crisis as potentially dangerous, as migration brings connotations of terrorism and threats to societal identity and the domestic economy.
As recent data shows, Romania should worry more about emigration than immigration, as it has the highest emigration growth rate in the world after Syria. As its citizens have the right of free movement within the EU, it has become increasingly difficult to convince Romanians to return from the more developed West. With its decreasing population in mind, Romania should therefore consider accepting migrants and integrating them into its workforce and population. However, there are considerable barriers to making this possible. Most notable is the fact that within the EU, Romania occupies a less affluent economic position, with numerous citizens at risk of poverty. This raises the question of why the state should bear the costs of supporting refugees while some of its citizens do not even have electricity or tap water.
Romanian politicians have often rejected burden-sharing initiatives in order to align with public sentiment that opposes immigration. For instance, in 2015, President Klaus Iohannis declared his opposition to compulsory quotas, and instead voluntarily accepted a smaller number of asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece, thus positioning himself against burden-sharing. The same attitude towards burden-sharing manifested during the Romanian presidency of the EU earlier this year. Although the UNHCR recommended that Romania use its EU presidency to reach a consensus between member states, Romania focused more on strengthening cooperation with Turkey and with certain African countries to prevent further illegal immigrant flows, rather than accelerating the reform of the Dublin regulations, thus challenging EU solidarity.
We have explored how two different EU member states are impacted by the migration crisis in different ways, and in turn, how this shapes domestic public perception. States on the EU’s external borders, such as Italy, face the greatest migration pressures and therefore favour reforming the Dublin agreement. In contrast, states shielded from the migration influx, such as Romania, seek to avoid burden-sharing in order to focus on domestic issues. While these states share anti-immigration sentiment, they advocate different approaches to solving the migrant crisis depending upon the way they are affected by it. There are many factors at play in different states’ positions on immigration, including a range of domestic policy matters. Consequently, we can affirm that the EU is fractured along multiple lines, making the issue more complex than it seems.
Eleonora Vassanelli and Radu Pupezeanu
Eleonora Vassanelli and Radu Pupezeanu are members of the European Affairs policy centre’s working group.
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