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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Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.