One of the central policy challenges of the Kosovo refugee crisis was to persuade neighbouring Macedonia to admit a massive influx of refugees that the government initially rejected. The eventual solution was based on a ‘burden‐sharing’ scheme involving the transfer of refugees to other countries. Human rights activists criticized the establishment of sharing as a pre‐condition because they believed that such a compromise on the principle of unconditional asylum would further accelerate the restrictive policies of states towards refugees. Others argued that the Macedonian position was a political fact that had to be recognized and that a pragmatic response was necessary to avert a humanitarian disaster at the border. These two approaches clashed as states and international organizations tried to deal with the emergency. The article proposes a third approach that in some measure reconciles the opposing camps. It explains that there is a legal case for not considering first asylum as an unconditioned obligation on all states in all refugee situations, and that there in a moral‐political case for encouraging states to share refugees for whom they feel they have a special responsibility. The recognition of such exceptional situations can strengthen the international refugee regime. The Kocovo emergency suggests that a clearly exceptional situation where burden‐sharing can be considered imperative is when vulnerable states are faced with a mass influx of refugees that may export the conflict and lead to serious destabilization.