The world is in the middle of an extraordinary migration crisis. Across the globe, chaos and violence have left nearly 60 million people displaced, largely living in difficult conditions in poor nations.
But there is one 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. He is a US property 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 said 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 explained. “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.”
Creating a brand-new state purely for refugees may sounds like the stuff of science fiction. And frankly, Mr Buzi’s background makes it easy to dismiss him as another hopeful “Silicon Valley disrupter”, ignorant of the complexities of what he is proposing.
However, some refugee experts have been surprisingly sympathetic to the concept, even if they do not necessarily believe that a new state is the way forward.
“What I love about it is his sense of moral outrage about a problem that could be fixed but no one is fixing,” said James Hathaway, director of the refugee and asylum programme at the University of Michigan Law School.
In his day job, Mr Buzi sells homes in San Francisco. His name might ring a bell for other reasons, however. Mr Buzi was outed last year as the benefactor behind Hidden Cash, an elaborate scavenger hunt that saw money hidden around various US cities. The project prompted both praise and scorn.
The new project is leaps and bounds more ambitious. So far, Mr Buzi says he has poured between $10,000 (£6,400) and $15,000 of his own money into setting up a team to help promote his idea, and he plans to put in a sizeable amount more to help the idea gain traction.
His end goal of buying or leasing a large amount of land to create a state will require much more, so he is hoping to get some of the world’s richest people or governments involved in his plan. “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,” Mr Buzi said.
Compared to his end goal, getting Jolie involved might be relatively easy. Nation states have been created in recent history, but it’s hardly something that happens easily. Mr Buzi suggests that a country with uninhabited islands might be willing to let some go for a sum. 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.
Even if the space could be found, how the state would function after creation is murky. Mr Buzi argues that countries with people from different backgrounds often become tolerant places, and that large-scale infrastructure projects and foreign investors would provide jobs. Other issues, such as social welfare and political infrastructure, would be worked out later, he says.
One big issue is whether refugees would actually choose to move to the new state. “In a globalised 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,” said Professor Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.
If they had to be compelled, there could be serious human rights concerns. Mr Hathaway pointed to Australia, which has leased land on Pacific island nations to house asylum-seekers. “You end up with refugees trapped in what are effectively large-scale prison camps,” Mr Hathaway said, warning that a “refugee nation” could become like the Gaza Strip.
Despite these deep misgivings, the experts had some kinder words for the proposal. They said that Mr Buzi had accurately pointed to many of problems with the current system: that countries such as Kenya, Lebanon or Jordan had become overburdened; that Western nations were not doing enough to resettle refugees; that refugees in camps often languished, cut off from society and opportunity; and that NGOs and international bodies were financially beholden to the current system, even if it was failing.
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