Europe in Africa: Could a new city state on a man-made island save refugee lives?

A map of the imagined Europe in Africa island. Image: Theo Deutinger.

What if you could save the lives of thousands of refugees by offering them sanctuary – and a European passport – on a purpose-built island in the Mediterranean, complete with football stadium, business park and university? Panacea or dangerous dystopia, Europe in Africa is an idea which cannot be ignored.

“I’m an optimist by definition,” says Austrian architect, writer and socio-cultural map maker Theo Deutinger. Appalled by the relentless tragedies in the Mediterranean, as African migrants fail time and time again to find a safe passage to Europe, he began drafting a proposal for the shuttling of asylum seekers to a refugee republic on reclaimed land between Tunisia and Italy.

Plonking a traumatised diaspora on an isolated island may seem a surprising solution, but Deutinger believes that founding your own autonomous city state repairs many of the pitfalls of the current system.

“People arrive here [in Europe] and are for years in a temporary situation, not knowing if they have to go back, going through the asylum-seeker procedure, not allowed to work. Three, four years of uncertainty – sometimes longer - just waiting, where you lose all energy and hope you had.”

with Europe in Africa (EiA), Deutinger explains, there are no more delays: “You can start to build a new life [straight away]. You can work, have your own finances and build your own future.”

Here’s how EiA works

The island would initially be an EU protectorate, amusingly expanding the EU, while the British government is in knots trying to shrink it. Europe in Africa is, says Deutinger, “a place where you can escape to.” Brexit exiles are also, he says – without raising an eyebrow – most welcome there.

The proposed location. Image: Theo Deutinger.

The first settlers would be experts in construction, city infrastructure, law and economics. A constitution would be drawn up and European businesses would be granted the right to trade there to provide work for the first wave of inhabitants.

Initially funded by the EU, the city would move towards self-sufficiency over a 25 year period and return the loan. Wages and consumer prices would be adjusted in accordance with the local economy, and EiA would be free either to develop its own currency or adopt the Euro. After five years, inhabitants can apply for EU citizenship and move freely between countries in the EU.


Beyond the nation state model

The advantage of EiA over refugee cities like Zaatari in Jordan is that the land is a tabula rasa: neutral and without history. This avoids the conflict seen in other new states such as Israel, the USA or Australia, where earlier settlers held a claim to the territory. “Land that is completely new has no history and is fairer,” claims Deutinger. “It has no past, only a future.”

Deutinger’s project urges us to think beyond what he describes as “the heavily guarded model of sovereign states” and look at current structures with fresh eyes.

He gives the example of a passport, which is “one ticket to the world” or “one emblem which marks you as a person which should not be accepted” – depending on whose hands it’s in. “We now experience the flip side of our good inventions and good intentions,” Deutinger adds wistfully.

The nascent city state, however, is free to adopt new economic and social models beyond what Deutinger describes as the “greed” and “gridlock” of existing systems.

How the process works. Image: Theo Deutinger.

Though he acknowledges that the project is “quite a big experiment”, he insists that the new settlers must not become our guinea pigs. If we want to explore social change, we should take up the challenge ourselves, he says. “The island has not the responsibility to solve these problems.”

But don’t expect a utopia, Deutinger warns. “The world we live in is not perfect,” he says, and nor will the island be. “It’s an illusion that there won’t be crime, but there is also energy [to start a new life] which is underestimated.”

The challenges – legal, logistical, financial – are manifold, but a team is building around Deutinger, intent on making EiA a reality. By his own admission, the project is not ideal, but governments are yet to bring something better to the table.

And with huge numbers still risking their lives at sea and attention focused on repatriating them, the death toll remains high. “The future can only be better,” says this unrelenting optimist – but it needs a radical rethink.

Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British journalist based in the Netherlands. She tweets at @DebNichollsLee.

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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.