Build artificial island in Med as home for refugees, says Dutch technologist

Image credit: A plan for the EIA island. Credit: Theo Deutinger

Theo Deutinger calls on European Commission to adopt his idea for ‘Europe in Africa’ – a ‘tabula rasa’ that would provide sanctuary for migrants heading for the EU.

A maverick technologist wants the European Union to adopt his plan to create an artificial island in the Mediterranean Sea offering sanctuary to tens of thousands of African migrants. 

Theo Deutinger is assembling a team of experts to pass judgement on legality of his scheme and hopes to place proposals before European Commission chiefs in the coming months.

Speaking to E&T last night from his home in the Netherlands, Deutinger, who works as a writer and architect, insisted his idea for a maritime city state dubbed ‘Europe in Africa’ (EIA) was no joke.

He thinks the project could help Europe cope with large inflows of migrants and prevent thousands of drownings in the Med. However, some migration experts have questioned the feasibility of the scheme in terms of its costs and whether these would compare favourably with the economics of dealing with migration in a more traditional way.

Deutinger’s vision is for the EU to secure a lease from Tunisia and Italy – which share exclusive rights over the Tunisian Plateau section of the seabed – to rent a relatively shallow portion of that region, located some 12 miles north of the Tunisian coastline.

The lease would run for 99 years. An economic plan to grow the island’s economy would apparently allow the loan to be paid back within 25 years. Tidal, wind and solar power would be harnessed for the nascent island state’s energy needs, and fresh water would be generated through desalination of sea water.

Engineers schooled in the art of land reclamation – a technique similar to that which was used to forge artificial islands off the coast of Dubai – would be recruited to create a new, man-made territory that would initially have space for 150,000 inhabitants but which could be expanded further after becoming full to capacity.

Unlike most territories, EIA would have no immigration checks, meaning that anyone who pitched up on its shores would be free to live and work there. As such, it could become a sanctuary for refugees and other types of migrants – potentially including fugitives and other outcasts. It would be a tabula rasa – a land without history. That means there would be no conflict with any local population, which has happened in other new states, like Israel, where the territory is contested.

Deutinger said: “What I’m intrigued with about the whole idea is that if the nation state will continue in its modern form, it will always produce outcasts like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, or even the Catalan separatist politicians [who were placed under a – now rescinded – international arrest warrant following Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence]. The passport as a document is only a creation of the 1920s, so it’s quite new.”

Settlers brought to the shores of the island via a regular ferry link with Tunisia would be invited to become EIA citizens. After five years of living and working there, they could gain EU citizenship. EIA’s defence and security would be looked after by the EU. To reach the EIA ferry port, however, many migrants from countries such as Nigeria would still have to undertake a perilous voyage across the Sahara Desert. Nigeria is one of the major points of origin for Africans crossing the Med into the EU. Eritrea and Somalia are also high on the list.

Deutinger acknowledged Africans heading for Europe would probably continue to fall into the hands of people smugglers while in transit across the desert. He also stressed that many would be likely to continue to try and reach the EU’s borderless Schengen Area, rather than settling for a life in EIA, because of perceptions about Europe offering a higher standard of living. The first EIA settlers would be “pioneers”, akin to colonisers of a newly discovered land, he said. As such, their decision would represent a leap into the unknown.

Deutinger said: “I don’t think it [EIA] will fill up quickly. If the island were full within 10 to 15 years, that would be quick. If you flee but you don’t really know where you’re going, you might settle there, but at the beginning at least, going to this island will be like going to the Moon or Mars. I think many would still try and get to Italy instead.”

Initial EIA jobs would be mostly involved in the construction of the island’s built infrastructure. The plan is for the EIA’s economy to eventually become self-sufficient. It would have its own currency, banking system, tax-system and trade agreements. In terms of the geographic and engineering challenges, Holland – Deutinger’s own country – is a past master in reclaiming land from the sea. Large swathes of its land lie below sea level and are protected by sophisticated dykes.

A statement on Deutinger’s website advertising his EIA project – designs for which have already gone on public display in the Netherlands – states: “EIA is geographically, bureaucratically and culturally right between Europe and Africa. It is a legal and human step towards Europe, but remains culturally very African.

“Everybody is welcome in EIA; nobody would be sent away. EIA is all what the European Union wants to be. This city has the potential to experiment with new forms of nationhood or introduce an intercontinental cityness. It has the potential to blur borders and to build bridges where at the moment just fences and barbwire exists. EIA will not become a Ceuta or Melilla since it does not belong to any nation, EIA will not be colonial since it belongs to its inhabitants and not to any European nation, EIA will not be a ghetto since it will not be fenced.

“Every option of starting a new life in Europe is a bad one. EIA wants to eliminate the worst one, the drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, and wants to become the first true step towards becoming an EU citizen.”

Inflows of people into the EU have been a major cause of tension between members of the bloc. Eastern European member states belonging to the so-called Visgrad Group have been among the harshest critics of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s plan for refugee quotas that would entail the likes of Hungary and Slovakia taking a fairer share of people fleeing conflict zones. The EU has tried various means intended to stem the flow of migrants from Africa, including helping Libya intercept ships on which they are travelling. The UN has called this policy “inhuman” as it has led to thousands of people being detained in horrific conditions in Libyan prisons or being sold into slavery.

The EIA plan has echoes of other utopian proposals to create a new refugee nation called ‘Refugia’. This radical idea envisages a set of loosely connected, self-governing units whose inhabitants would be issued with a ‘Sesame Pass’ – a kind of biometric smart card that would permit them to move around, work and claim financial entitlements, within the Refugia territories. Such a scheme could help regularise the status of millions of refugees and prevent them from being deported or disappearing into the underground economy.

Critics of projects like EIA and Refugia say they are too focused on trying to solve problems caused to Europe by inflows of refugees, rather than on the complex set of factors causing people to want to migrate in the first place.

Dr Jeff Crisp from the Refugee Studies Centre, who has praised aspects of the Refugia idea, said: “When I first saw the [EIA] proposal a few months ago my first reaction was to say, is this a serious proposal that the person who’s come up with it really wants to take forward? I thought it was just like floating a balloon and saying, look, we need to have some fresh ideas. Here’s one.” 

He added: “Even if you could demonstrate that technically it’s possible, you’d have to move onto the political, legal and financial aspects of it.”

Migration research centre Compas estimates that 65 million people are currently uprooted within or outside their countries, with many of them living in limbo for years at a time.

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