Can A “Hong Kong For Refugees” Solve The Crisis?

Much has been written about how to deal with the current refugee and migration crisis, but an actual comprehensive solution hasn’t been provided. According to some estimates, there were around 60 million refugees in the world one year ago. In 2015, around one million of these 60 million entered Europe by sea, which already caused a massive political crisis. Even those who are keen to allow more migration should realise that even tripling the numbers allowed in last year would only provide solace to a tiny part of those in need.

There is a more structural and comprehensive solution, however. It combines the idea of “start-up cities” with simple historical precedents: to create a new city, very similar to Hong Kong, to welcome refugees.

The Example of Hong Kong

We’ve already seen it done before.What was Hong Kong in the beginning, other than a city governed by British officials and populated largely by refugees from Maoist China? If it was possible for the British to provide a safe home for millions of people on the run in much more challenging times, why wouldn’t it be possible for the whole of the developed world – not just Western countries – to give any refugee the most precious thing the developed world can offer them: the protection of the rule of law, which has propelled the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and parts of East and Southeast Asia to the levels of wealth they enjoy today?

I propose to create what I call “free havens,” which really are newly created cities, governed by officials from countries with a high level of rule of law, and where any refugee could go to. This idea is very similar to the concept of “startup cities” or “private cities,” whereby cities would be created by private investors from scratch in a bid to provide a better place to live and a more beneficial investment climate by offering a stronger protection of property rights than elsewhere. A territory should be rented from a state, similar to how the British leased Hong Kong from China for 100 years; but this time a fair price should obviously be paid to the landlord.

Where?

There are many possible locations; we just need to make them accessible.Where would this be located? It could be anywhere that nobody lives, given that only around three percent of the world is urbanised. A similar proposal was made by Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris, one of the richest men in Africa, who has offered to buy an island off Italy or Greece in order to rehouse hundreds of thousands of refugees. He identified 23 uninhabited islands that he could buy to host refugees, but the Greek government wasn’t interested.

Other alternatives would be to create it inside Syria or Libya, after liberating an area from terrorist groups. Perhaps an offshore territory owned by Britain or France could be suitable – for example, one of the two areas in Cyprus which currently host British military bases. If no state would agree, a more ambitious variety of the plan could be to locate these cities on newly created islands.

Politically Unrealistic?

The demand is there, and the idea already has support.Does this proposal sound politically unrealistic? Less than one would think. A similar campaign to create a “refugee nation” was started by American entrepreneur Jason Buzi, and many other prominent people have endorsed the idea, including Bob Pleysier, who headed the Belgian government’s asylum department for a long time and knows the ins and outs of the problem. The more people realise this challenge can’t be solved by tinkering in the margins, the more they are warming to the idea.

Both in Australia in 2013 and in Europe in 2016, the so-called “Australian solution” of border control was implemented when the pressure on the external border became too massive. This solution involves telling anyone who tries to enter illegally to await their asylum application in refugee shelters near the border or off-shore. Refugees no longer have a huge incentive to risk their lives, but still retain the right to apply for asylum.

To realise this, Australia created off-shore shelters in Papua New Guinea. In Australia, this effectively brought down the recorded number of people drowning in Australian waters to near-zero from at least 1,000 in the 13 years before.

Understanding the Problem (and the Solution’s Own Problems)

Desperate to avoid another “summer of discontent” following a strong increase in the popularity of right-wing populists across Europe, Europe’s politicians decide to try a whole new approach in Greece in March 2016. Since then, only five people have died in trying to make it from Turkey to Greece – a sharp decrease from the 805 who died in Greek-Turkish waters last year. This coincided with a sharp 95% drop in asylum seekers arriving in Greece from Turkey.

In implementing something like the “Australian” approach, Greece prevented asylum seekers from continuing their journey to mainland Greece from the Greek islands close to Turkey, wheras before they could make it to Greece’s mainland and then on to the Balkans and Germany very easily. However, despite the success of cutting the number of deaths at sea, the conditions in Greece’s so-called “hot spots,” where people are detained, are very troubling. The same must be said of Australia’s off-shore shelters.

Apart from this EU-induced policy change in Greece, two other major factors contributed to a sharp drop in drownings between Turkey and Greece. First, there was the closure of the so-called “Balkan route,” with countries from Austria all the way to Macedonia implementing border controls, thereby preventing asylum seekers from making it to Germany and Sweden, where many desire to go. Secondly, there was the “EU-Turkey deal,” whereby Turkey promised to crack down on human smugglers and agreed to “take back” both irregular migrants and asylum seekers, with Greece declaring Turkey a “safe country” so this would be legally possible. The implementation has been fraught with problems, but both factors did discourage people from risking their lives.

Thousands Are Still Drowning

How different this is from the situation in the water between Libya and Italy, where an increasing number of people are trying to make the risky journey, and many drowning as a result. There, on the “Central Mediterranean Route,” almost 2,900 refugees died in 2015, and 2,606 have already died in the first half of 2016 alone.

Efforts to stop smuggling and save refugees are at odds.So far, coordinated military actions to save the lives of those trying to make it and combat human smugglers have largely failed to stop human smuggling. More problematically, they have served to convince more people to risk their lives at sea. A well-intended operation to save lives is seen by many as a ferry for migrants keen to cross the Mediterranean.

The House of Lords has acknowledged there is some validity in claims that these operations “act as a magnet to migrants and ease the task of smugglers.” The Libyan coastguard explicitly warned, to no avail,

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