Migrant Crisis

Billionaire Wants to Build Refugee Island

Just the latest amazing and insane idea for housing Syria’s refugees.

Earlier this week, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris tweeted out an idea he called “crazy.”

He would buy an island, fill it with refugees, and then provide jobs and housing until they could return to their homeland—if they so chose.

“Greece or Italy sell me an island, ill call its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country,” he wrote on Twitter. Then, added: “Crazy idea .. Maybe but at least temporary until they can return to their countries ?? !!”

When the skepticism began, he remained steadfast. “There is nothing to joke about !” he wrote. “I don’t joke on the misery of people.”

As live feeds of Syrian refugees walking out of Hungary have flooded the airwaves and pictures of drowned refugee children plaster social media, the response has been dramatic. In Iceland, 10,000 people offered to house Syrian families. Singer Bob Geldof announced he would let four families live in his homes. U.S. Senators called on Congress to take in at least five times more refugees than the country currently allows.

Sawiris isn’t the first to propose such a seemingly outlandish idea, but his is the most singularly generous and bold so far. The telecommunications mogul is worth around $3 billion. In an interview with AFP, Sawiris estimated the cost of purchasing the island—$10 million to $100 million, he said—wouldn’t be a deterrent. The issue also isn’t supply, as there are numerous uninhabited islands in the Mediterranean. The main problem would be persuading the current owners to sell off a plot of land. Then he would target the bulk of needed investment into infrastructure, like “temporary shelters to house the people, then you start employing the people to build housing, schools, universities, hospitals,” he said.

Meanwhile, in June, a California real estate millionaire named Jason Buzi launched a plan for a “Refugee Nation.” He outlined (PDF) four options for resettlement: one involved purchasing an island and another involved building a new island. “The solution is simple: for the millions of stateless people around the world—a state of their own!” it said.

His idea received mixed reactions. In The Guardian, Alexander Betts, with Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center, warned not to dismiss the innovation, but worried it could isolate refugees like a leprosy colony.

“You end up with refugees trapped forever in what is effectively large-scale prison camps,” James Hathaway, the director of University of Michigan’s Program in Refugee and Asylum, told The Washington Post, referring to Australia’s practice of holding refugees on the Pacific Islands.

“This proposal may be ridiculed or attacked by some, but hopefully is not ignored,” Buzi wrote. “It should be vigorously debated, because the world needs a solution to this staggering humanitarian crisis... But we can no longer sit idly by as millions of our fellow human beings suffer due to human-created conflicts.”

Greece is struggling to assist the influx of needy refugees streaming across its borders by the thousands, exacerbated by its current financial crisis.

Refugees coming to the island of Kos were attacked by people with bats on Friday morning, according to Amnesty International. So far this year, 31,000 refugees have passed through Kos, which currently is hosting more than 3,000 in makeshift conditions. In August, 2,000 refugees were locked in the sports stadium.

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In Lesbos, the number of Syrian refugees who have arrived in transit—around 90,000 this year—is more than the island’s total local population. On Friday morning in Lesbos, where dinghies and boats have brought over thousands of refugees from Turkey, 200 Syrians threw stones at police who were keeping them from boarding a ship to the mainland.

The mayor of the island’s main town begged for more assistance. He said he’d been asking the national government for a state of emergency to be declared on the island but to no avail.

“[T]he situation has become unmanageable,” he told reporters.

In his interview with AFP, Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian magnate who has the funds, imagined a place where the refugees would be treated once more as human beings.

“The way they are being treated now, they are being treated like cattle,” he said.