Egyptian billionaire offers to buy a Mediterranean island for refugees

Telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris says he plans to approach Greece or Italy about buying an island where refugees will be treated as 'human beings.'

Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters
An Afghan refugee woman with a broken leg holds her son as her husband pushes her wheelchair in their effort to reach the village of Idomeni near the borders of Greece with Macedonia on Friday. European Union officials are preparing to push EU governments to take in many more asylum-seekers from pressured frontier states, including Hungary, and seeking to overcome resistance to a quota system in eastern Europe.

We heard about “Refugee Nation” last month, the proposal by real estate mogul Jason Buzi that suggested giving asylum seekers a state of their own.

Now, an Egyptian billionaire is offering to buy an island for refugees, this time off the coast of Greece or Italy. Its name? “Independence.”

It wasn’t clear at first how serious telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris was being when he initially announced these musings on Twitter.

But in an interview with Agence France-Presse Thursday, Mr. Sawiris insisted his plan could work, and said that he would be approaching the governments of those countries.

“Of course it's feasible,” he said. “You have dozens of islands which are deserted and could accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees.”

Sawiris noted that the island could cost between $10 million and $100 million. But building up the required infrastructure would be “the main thing,” he said.

The billionaire described how the island would have "temporary shelters to house the people, then you start employing the people to build housing, schools, universities, hospitals.”

Sawiris said it would probably be difficult to convince Greece or Italy to sell off an island. He’d also have to form new jurisdiction and customs regulations. 

But his vision for how life on the island would look is clear: refugees would be treated as “human beings,” he told AFP. “The way they are being treated now, they are being treated like cattle.”

“And if things improve, whoever wants to go back [to their homeland] goes back,” said Sawiris.

Sawiris is the third richest man in Egypt, according to Forbes. He owns Orascom TMT, which operates mobile networks across countries in the Middle East and Africa and serves as Egypt’s largest employer

The billionaire’s attitude is also indicative of a sea change in views of migrants that has unfolded in recent weeks, as photographs of a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a Turkish beach have prompted a shift in tolerance toward migrants arriving in Europe, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The UK announced Friday that it would allow the resettlement of “thousands” more refugees from Syrian border camps, as pressure intensifies on Europe to open its borders to more asylum seekers.

More than 2,300 people have died at sea trying to reach Europe since January, many of them Syrians who fled their country's ongoing civil war, according to AFP.

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