Last week, I was contacted by a member of a team working for a man who thinks he can solve this crisis. He isn't a politician or academic, nor does he work directly with refugees at an NGO. Instead, he's a Bay Area real estate mogul. His solution is, depending on your position, either strikingly simple or absurdly naive: The world needs to come together to create a new country for refugees to live in.
"It's almost shocking to me that nobody's talking about this as a solution," Jason Buzi says in a phone call about Refugee Nation, his plan to create a new state to house the world's refugees. "We have a lot of stateless individuals all over the world right now," he explains. "The idea is, if we could give them a state of their own, at least they'd have a place to live in safety and be allowed to live and work like everybody else."
To some readers, it may seem quite obvious why no one is talking about this idea: Creating a brand-new state purely for refugees and stateless people is the stuff of science fiction. And frankly, Buzi's background makes it easy to dismiss him as another hopeful "Silicon Valley disrupter," ignorant of the complexities of what he is proposing and looking for a silver bullet.
However, refugee experts I contacted have been surprisingly sympathetic to the concept, even if they don't necessarily believe a new state is the way forward. Buzi is right to feel that the way the world deals with refugees doesn't appear to be working, some said, and perhaps we really do need a new approach.
"What I love about it is his sense of moral outrage about a problem that could be fixed but no one is fixing," James Hathaway, the director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum at the University of Michigan Law School, told me after reading Buzi's manifesto.
In his day job, Buzi works at buying, selling and occasionally building properties in the Bay Area, something that earned him some unfavorable news coverage in the past. His name might ring a bell for other reasons, however. Buzi was outed last year as the benefactor behind Hidden Cash, an elaborate scavenger hunt that saw money hidden around various cities. The project prompted both praise and scorn. Hidden Cash has been mothballed for some time now; Buzi claims it simply became too much work.
The new project is perhaps similar in its idealistic simplicity, but it is leaps and bounds more ambitious. So far, Buzi says he has poured between $10,000 and $15,000 of his own money into setting up a team and Web site to help promote his idea of a Refugee Nation, and he plans to put in a sizable amount more to help the idea gain traction. He plans to use the exposure (and Twitter followers) he got from Hidden Cash to benefit his new cause. "I'm not a billionaire," he says. "But I'm in a place where I can spend some of my own resources to try and promote in and help it along."
His end goal of buying or leasing a large amount of land to create a state will require much more -- tens of billions at least, he says -- so he is hoping to get some of the world's richest people or governments involved in his plan. He talks hopefully of getting celebrities on board. "Nobody knows or cares who I am, but if you've got Angelina Jolie, for instance, behind it, it's going to influence a lot more people and get more people to know about it," Buzi says.
Compared to his end goal, getting Jolie involved might be relatively easy. Nation states have been created in recent history – Buzi's birthplace, Israel, is an example – but it's hardly something that happens often or easily. Buzi suggests that a country with uninhabited islands might be willing to let some go for a sum. Someone offered to sell him an island when he was recently in the Philippines, he says: "It wasn't even that much, compared to prices here in San Francisco anyway." He talks about countries with small populations that might be willing to let people live with them in exchange for money, such as the Caribbean island state of Dominica, but it's unclear how the process would actually happen.
Even if the space could be found, how the state would function after creation is murky. Buzi argues that countries with people from different backgrounds often become tolerant places, and that large-scale infrastructure projects and foreign investors – who might be attracted by the publicity value of the new "Refugee Nation" – would provide jobs. Other issues, like social welfare and political infrastructure, would be worked out later, he says. "Right now it's a little like meeting a girl on a first date," he explains, "I'm not thinking yet about what I'm going to name my children, right?"
To those who work in the world of refugees, these responses may give reason to pause. Buzi says he is prepared for that response – an acquaintance who works at at refugee NGO dismissed the idea years ago, in part spurring him on to push further with the idea. Notably, a section of his report outlining his plans for Refugee Nation addresses a potential conflict with the refugee NGO community head on. "It sometimes takes an outsider’s viewpoint to shake things up," it reads, before comparing the situation to Netflix and Blockbuster.
Perhaps that is true (a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency said they had not heard of the plan when asked). However, to put it to the test I asked a number of refugee experts, many of whom are also critical of the current situation. Bill Frelick, Refugee Rights Program Director at Human Rights Watch, is typical of the reaction when he says he was "flabbergasted" by the idea. "Of course your first reaction is that it's so idealistic, a castles in the sky type of thing," he says. "How do you bring something like this down to earth?"
One big issue is whether refugees would actually choose to move to the new state, or whether they would have to be compelled. "In a globalized world, given freedom of choice, people ultimately want to choose where they live, and are likely to seek to move to where their friends, family, and greatest opportunities lie," Professor Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University says. Artificial nation-building often leads to displacement and violence, Betts adds, and it would be hard to imagine people wanting to permanently live in such a place unless it were "more or less utopian."
If they had to be compelled, there could be serious human rights concerns. University of Michigan's Hathaway points to Australia, which has leased land on Pacific Island nations to house asylum seekers. "You end up with refugees trapped forever in what is effectively large scale prison camps," Hathaway says, warning that the Refugee Nation could easily end up becoming like the Gaza Strip. "Is a battered woman better off in a jail than in an abusive home? I guess you would say yes but it's hardly a dignified solution."
"It would have to be a utopia or it would become a dystopia," Frelick says.
Despite these deep misgivings, these experts had some kinder words for the proposal. They said that Buzi had accurately pointed to many of problems with the current system: that countries like Kenya, Lebanon or Jordan have become overburdened; that Western nations are not doing enough to help to resettle refugees; that refugees in camps often languish, cut off from society and opportunity; and that NGOs and international bodies are financially beholden to the current system, even if it is failing and the situation is clearly getting worse.
There was agreement that radical change is needed. Where the experts differ is what that radical change should be. Speaking of Refugee Nation, Frelick asks: "Is this something that is serving the needs and respecting the rights of refugees, or is this something that is serving states' interests to basically rid themselves of a problem?" It's a fair question. Why is it easier to create a new country than successfully resettle refugees or provide funding to improve their lives where they are currently, for example?
"I don't think the political will is there," Buzi explains. He has a point, considering the fierce opposition to immigration in the United States and Europe and chronic underfunding of refugee agencies. "I think [Refugee Nation] is actually much easier to accomplish," Buzi adds. If he is right, perhaps we're already living in the dystopia.
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