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The Logic of Collective Action and Syrian Refugees


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In “The Logic of Collective Action”, published in 1965,  Mancur Olson exposed and analysed the influence of economic incentives on group dynamics. Fast-forward to today: Europe has been swamped by waves of Syrian refugees who are escaping the conflict in their homeland and trying to reach what should be a safe haven. However, the reality they find is much different. The members of the European Union have so far failed to provide an effective response to this civil displacement, spreading the bane of the humanitarian crisis from Syria to Europe, as well. The EU cannot keep up with the influx of refugees; in 2014, only 184,655 people have been granted asylum, a number which accounts for less than a third of those who applied for it (BBC, 2016). Once we temporarily put aside our humanitarian concerns, Olson’s theoretical framework can provide us with useful insights on the politics behind this absence of cooperation, as well as any possible solutions.

“The Logic of Collective Action” shows us once again that our reality is, more often than we might think, understandable through economic frameworks

Firstly, in order to understand each European country’s respective behaviour, their personal interests need to be identified. Given that these countries are governed by rational actors, we can expect them to be encouraged to act and contribute to the collective cause only when individual gains exceed individual costs (Olson, 1965, 24). The differences in incentives partially explains why EU states have shown various degrees of effort in approaching the issue; for instance, those pushing for a cooperative solution in the EU parliament are those bearing most of the costs of the general negligence towards the refugees. One of the reasons some states are incurring greater disadvantages is geography. Greece and Italy, homes of the main arriving harbours on the Mediterranean, have been dramatically exposed to this civilian exodus. Lesvos and other Eastern Aegean islands welcomed 856, 723 refugees in 2015 only, while the figure for Lampedusa and nearby ports is 153, 842 (UNHCR, 2016). As Italian Foreign Minister Gentiloni pointed out, “the idea that EU border countries should solve 80 percent of the problem is completely out of touch with reality” (Follain and Wishart, 2015).  Furthermore, the economic conditions of a European member are a determinant factor in the incentive differentiation process: Germany has received more asylum applications than the total of all other EU states because the refugees see in its prosperity opportunities for employment.  They have also been very active in the question of a collective solution, pushing for a quota system to relocate immigrants proportionately across the European Union (Guardian, 2015) . Needless to say, not all countries are as open and willing to accept refugees as Germany has been: the UK has opted out of the possible quota system, whilst Hungary has controversially built a fence in defence of its borders (Human Rights Watch, 2016).


Both the UK and Hungary’s respective positions could be seen to have been anticipated by Olson, who wrote that ‘free-riding’ occurs when members of a specific group are not willing to bear any costs of the collective action – whose goal should here be the achievement of a fair placement of refugees across the continent -but cannot be prevented from getting a share of the benefits from its provision, namely the resolution of all social tensions and instability brought about by an excessively unequal distribution of migrants in the EU (Olson, 1965, 35). A blatant example of free-riding is found in the Vintimille episode in June 2015: France denied access to a group of refugees who had gathered in the confining Italian city with the hope of proceeding further north (Kirchgaessner, 2015). Olson did not necessarily regard free riding as a symptom of failure: in small groups, the collective good can sometimes be provided through unilateral action by the most resourceful individuals, who are willing to accept the whole burden of costs for future benefits. Others will bear fruit as well, causing an “exploitation of the great by the small” (Olson, 1965, 35). However, in this case there seems to be no EU member with the capacities to solve the emergency on its own (Munchau, 2015). Not that no one has tried: Merkel, whose state was, as mentioned before, greatly incentivized to find a solution, sped up asylum processes and authorized the construction of new reception centres, estimating an influx of around 1 million refugees by the end of 2015 (Human Rights Watch, 2016). But her Wilkommenkultur [“culture of being welcoming”] was doomed from the very beginning: Germany started reintroducing temporary border controls shortly after Merkel’s words of tolerance and openness, because of the unruliness of excessive migration flows (BBC, 2015) and lack of popular support for the chancellor’s latest policies, especially after the Cologne attacks this last New Year’s Eve which spread additional fear of immigrants amongst the German electorate (Kim, 2016). If not even Europe’s most powerful nation can persuade the rest of the Union to take in refugees, how can the crisis be put to an end?


Following Olson’s classification of groups, the EU is one of intermediate size: the collective good cannot be provided by a sole actor, but every individual contribution is necessary for the provision of the public good. Coordination and organisation are the two fundamental pillars of the common strategy (Olson, 1965, 50). To ensure that all members of the Union are willing to collaborate, their private interests in the settlement of this humanitarian crisis ought to be greater than the costs each incurs when welcoming in refugees. Olson would suggest employing selective incentives to encourage the mobilisation of unwilling group members: those who actively participate in collective action are to be treated differently than those who do not (Olson, 1965, 51). Such incentives could be positive, in the form of rewards for the countries most involved in the issue, or negative, namely sanctions for those failing to comply with what was decided in Brussels. Confronted with these possibilities, European states would likely be more willing to devote their time and resources to the case. A similar political move has been carried out with regards to a non-EU state, signalling that continental leaders have started to acknowledge the determinant influence of incentives.  The “Draft Action Plan”, presented in October to Turkish leader Erdogan by the EU, offers not only financial aid to the country to better handle and host refugees from neighbouring Syria, but also intelligence sharing and easing of visa restrictions for its citizens (Cook, 2015). Turkey’s unconcealed desire of entering the European Union was addressed directly in this change of incentives. Hence, there is no reason to think that this type of solution could not work also within the pre-existing group.


The Logic of Collective Action” shows us once again that our reality is, more often than we might think, understandable through economic frameworks. The roots of the lack of collaboration – and possible solutions to it – unfortunately lie very far from humanitarian concerns and are strictly related to the interests of each European state. Despite this bleak reality, we are not to despair: if we listen to Olson, mobilization is possible by formally punishing group members opting out, and strongly rewarding those who contribute the most. The time has come to provide this morally fundamental collective good: Syrian refugees and European territories deserve a peaceful and fair solution.




is a second year student at King’s College London pursuing a BSc in Political Economy.




BBC (2015, September 14), Migrant Crisis: Germany Starts Temporary Border Controls, BBC News, available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34239674, Last accessed 2 February, 2016


BBC (2016, January 28), Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Graphics, BBC News, available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34131911, Last accessed 2 February, 2016


Cook, L. (2015, October 6), EU Offers Turkey Incentives To Better Tackle Refugee Crisis, AP, available: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/45d5bb7298254fc6984b5541b1efb2d2/3-million-more-refugees-could-leave-syria-turkey-warns-eu, Last accessed 2 February, 2016


Follain, J. and Wishart, I. (2015, October 26), Italy Says EU’s Response “Inadequate” as Refugees Surge, Bloomberg Business News, available: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-26/europe-tensions-on-refugee-crisis-laid-bare-at-brussels-meeting, Last accessed 2 February 2016


Guardian (2015, October 23), Germany to Push for Compulsory EU Quotas to Tackle Refugee Crisis , The Guardian, available: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/23/refugee-crisis-germany-push-compulsory-eu-quotas, Last accessed 2 February 2016


Human Rights Watch (2016), World Report 2016: European Union, available: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/european-union-0, Last accessed 2 February 2016


Kim, L. (2016, January 19), How Angela Merkel Became the Last Best Hope for European Liberalism, Slate, available:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2016/01/angela_merkel_is_the_unlikely_guardian_of_european_liberalism.html, Last acccessed 2 February 2016


Kirchgaessner, K. (2015, June 16), Italian Police Forcibly Remove Migrants Stranded Near French Boarder, The Guardian, available:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/16/italy-forcible-removal-eu-mediterranean-migrant-crisis-french-border-refugees, Last accessed 2 February 2016


Munchau, W.(2015, September 6), The Deadly Disunity Of The Europeans, Financial Times, available:

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fd69b61c-52fa-11e5-8642-453585f2cfcd.html?siteedition=uk#axzz3z1Vp8vtQ, Last accessed 2 February 2016


Olson, M. (1965), The Logic Of Collective Action,  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press


United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2016), Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean, The UN Refugee Agency, available: http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php Last accessed 2 February 2016


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