This week, Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris announced an audacious plan for the world's refugee crisis. If Greece or Italy would allow him to buy an island, Sawiris explained on Twitter, he would use it to house refugees. Sawiris, whose net worth is said to be about $3 billion, suggested that the island would serve as a "new country" for migrants.
Sawiris' idea was popular – it has been retweeted more than 3,000 times so far, often with encouraging messages. It comes as many around the world called on governments to do more to protect people in what has been called the biggest migrant crisis in 70 years.
The tycoon has confirmed to Agence France Presse that he was serious about the plan. "Of course it's feasible," Sawiris said Thursday. "You have dozens of islands which are deserted and could accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees." His hope seems to be to provide an alternative to the dangerous journeys many migrants and refugees are making to Europe.
The plan to buy a Mediterranean island echoes another proposal to create a "Refugee Nation" recently made by American businessman Jason Buzi.
"We have a lot of stateless individuals all over the world right now," Buzi explained to WorldViews in July. "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."
At the time, some experts expressed caution about Buzi's idea. Prof. Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University, warned that unless a new nation designed just for migrants and refugees was "more or less utopian," many would not choose to live there. Instead, they would still favor making the journey to an established country like Germany, where friends and relatives may already be.
If migrants and refugees had to be coerced into living in the new nation, it would raise serious ethical problems. "You end up with refugees trapped forever in what is effectively large-scale prison camps," said James Hathaway, director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum at the University of Michigan Law School. One Twitter user suggested that the new country could risk becoming a "leper colony."
Even so, these same experts expressed support for the radical thinking behind Buzi's plan. "The idea is most usefully deployed as a metaphor for creative thinking about the political geography of asylum," Betts wrote in an op-ed about Refugee Nation published in the Guardian. "Political leadership and imagination are certainly needed more than ever."
While Sawiris told the AFP that he is unsure whether Greece or Italy would sell him an island, he hopes that he could purchase one for $10 million to $100 million. He added that the "main thing is investment in infrastructure." However, when asked on Twitter why he doesn't just allow refugees to come to a tourist resort his family owns in Egypt, he dismissed the idea.
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