It’s hard to argue that the current system for refugees is working. Around $27 million is spent on the refugee crisis each day, but most of that goes to temporary aid–food, tents, emergency medical care–rather than any long-term solutions. Most refugees are stuck for years in camps, or end up moving to developing countries where they struggle to survive. Half are children.
So a Silicon Valley real estate mogul–himself the child of a Jewish refugee from Iraq, who ended up in Israel–is pushing for a radical and more permanent answer: What if a new country was established to welcome all 60 million refugees in the world?
“We need a solution for all refugees, not just specific populations,” says Jason Buzi, an entrepreneur and founder of the Refugee Nation project. “I want something where it doesn’t matter what your race is, what your nationality is, what your religion is, where you came from–you have a home. You have a country you can go to where you have citizenship and you have full and equal rights to everybody else.”
There’s plenty of land available. “Countries like the Phillippines have thousands of islands that are uninhabited,” he says. “Then there’s countries like Dominica or Micronesia that have fewer than 100,000 people living there. Singapore is about the same size and has about 5 million people. There’s plenty of space. It goes back to the political question: Who would be willing to sell territory for it to be established, potentially as a sovereign nation?”
That may be the sticking point. “The creative thinking of Refugee Nation is great,” says James Hathway, director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law at the University of Michigan Law School. “But there are two quite fundamental problems that make the Refugee Nation model unworkable in its present form. … States may sell territory, but they don’t and won’t sell sovereignty. So the idea that the new ‘home’ could give out real citizenship to those who go there is not viable.”
If a country did sell sovereignty, and any refugee could become a citizen, that might create other problems. “The Refugee Convention would allow any and every state to force a refugee to go there–hence the dumping ground, or Gaza Strip, risk,” Hathaway says.
Still, if the model can be tweaked, there could be some underlying merit. Only 1% of refugees in the world are considered for resettlement each year. While more countries could host more asylum seekers–and Buzi suggests this as an alternate scenario–he sees that as something that actually might be harder to accomplish than forming a whole new country.
“I don’t think right now it’s politically feasible,” he says. “This may change, but right now there’s sort of this anti-immigrant backlash, both in the U.S. and in Europe. There’s a little bit more concern now in European countries in response to some of the tragedies we’ve seen…but I want a solution for all refugees. So far, what’s happened historically, is that less than 5% of refugees are resettled in the West. For the vast majority that has not been happening, and they’re living in refugee camps for many years, decades and generations.”
There might even be a few social advantages to a refugee-only country. “You could argue that refugees if they’re resettling in their own country, even though they’re coming from many different backgrounds, they all sort of have a common denominator that they basically went through hell,” he says. “If you’re an immigrant from Africa, or the Middle East, or Asia, and now you’re settling in a Scandinavian country, that’s going to have its own challenges. Are you ever going to really feel like a Swede when you came from a culture that’s totally different, and you look totally different from the majority of the population?”
Buzi considered the idea of a refugee-only nation for several years, and felt like this was the time to bring it forward. “Now it’s really in the headlines, and that’s why I decided to act this year,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll solve it. It’s getting worse. A lot of problems in the world are actually getting better. This is one that’s getting worse. It’s a human-caused problem that can be solved by humans, too.”
Because his own father was forced to flee Iraq because of religious persecution, he’s acutely aware that what’s happening to refugees now could have happened to him. “I feel like I’ve had every privilege in the world to pursue the kind of life I wanted to pursue, and I’ve also had a lot of freedom and a lot of opportunities,” he says. “I just want to see everybody have that same opportunity.”
Buzi is reaching out to influencers–people like Bill Gates or Angelina Jolie–to try to build more momentum for the idea. And it seems that he already might be inspiring others to act: Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has identified two Greek islands that he’s attempting to buy as a home for Syrian refugees.
“That shows that this is not that outlandish,” Buzi says. “I’m talking about billionaires buying islands for refugees. Within a few months of me saying that publicly, someone actually stepped up and proposed to do it. I think it’s already starting to happen.”