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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Five ways in which the rest of the world can avoid the homelessness crisis plaguing the US

Housing for all. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, where the number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, yet it is dwarfed by the scale of the issue in the US. More than 500,000 homeless were found across the US during just one night, compared to the UK’s 2017 count of 4,751. Changes in the definition of homelessness and flawed methodologies suggest that the true number for the US could be anywhere from 2.5 to 10.2 times greater.

Millions more live in overcrowded or slum housing, forced to choose between the damage that poor conditions do to their physical and mental health, and the street. All of the US’s housing issues – from foreclosures to evictions to poor conditions – hit communities of colour the hardest.

This is due to a legacy of discrimination, which continues to undercut any commitment to safe and decent housing for all residents, whether in the private or public sector. In my recent book, City of Segregation, I explain how the long, violent history of creating spaces for the white and privileged classes is embedded in a number of practices, which continue in US cities to this day.

Exporting inequality

As private developers and investors seek out urban land in major cities around the world to secure their fortunes, real estate patterns and practices developed within the US are increasingly being observed elsewhere.

In cities as diverse as London, Sydney and Durban, community groups which have been working for decades to improve their neighbourhoods languish with little public or private resource. Meanwhile, developers create spaces for foreign investors and new residents, who anticipate certain protections and privileges such as greater security, high quality amenities and neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds.

This is a driving force behind rising evictions and the criminalisation of homelessness, alongside gated communities, hostile architecture, “broken windows” policing with its focus on prosecuting activities such as graffiti or jaywalking and the growing privatisation of public spaces through regeneration.

But there is still time for other countries to choose a different path. The UK, in particular, can build on the legacies of the post-war political consensus that all residents should have access to quality housing, and its acknowledgement of institutional racism and some history of government anti-racist campaigning.

Both legacies should be improved, but a renewed commitment to a programme of housing and anti-racism are central to increasing equality, prosperity and well-being for all. Based on my research, I’ve come up with five steps which the UK and countries like it can follow, to ensure that future development reduces – rather than drives – homelessness and inequality.


1. Build social housing

Unlike the US, the UK acknowledges a right to a home, and within living memory provided it for a huge swathe of British society. Social housing – whether in the form of traditional council flats, cooperatives or community land trusts – provides a variety of housing types and keeps rents from rising too far beyond wages.

When social housing is widely available, it makes a huge difference to people who – for one reason or another, and often through no fault of their own – become homeless. With social housing to fall back on, homelessness is a temporary condition which can be safely resolved. Without it, homelessness can become a life-destroying downwards spiral.

2. Preserve and expand community assets

Severe segregation in the US stripped entire communities of access to quality food, jobs, education, green spaces, services, banks and loans. Poverty is endemic, and can easily tip into homelessness. While far from perfect, the UK’s post-war commitment to universal provision of services, such as education and health care, and building social housing across all neighbourhoods underpinned a surge in upward mobility.

This achievement should be salvaged from the damage done by Right To Buy – a policy which sold off social housing without replacing it – and austerity, which has prompted a sell-off of public assets and land, as well as the closure of childrens’ services, libraries and community centres.

3. Decommodify housing

A market geared towards building apartment blocks for the portfolios of investors who will never live in them cannot produce the kind of housing and neighbourhoods which residents need, much less at a price they can afford.

While London has been badly affected for some time, this trend is now spreading to other areas of the UK and Europe. Local and national governments must act to prevent global demand for housing as investments from driving prices beyond the reach of those who need real homes.

4. Build communities, not walls

Gates, bars, armed security and homeowner restrictions are all ugly traits of private housing developed within the US context of desperate inequality and racism. The UK has a long and vibrant tradition of community development, creating a supportive built environment and social infrastructure of schools, libraries and other municipal services for residents.

Community assets. Image: Helen K/Flickr/creative commons.

This kind of development, and the social mobility and growing equality it fosters, safeguards public health and safety – not big walls, barbed wire and security guards. The private rented sector in the UK should be regulated to bring it more in line with Europe, where tenants prosper with security of tenure and strong regulation of rents and rent increases.

5. Raise your voice

Those who are bearing the brunt of our current housing crisis must be at the centre of efforts to change it. From tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, to campaign groups such as Justice for Grenfell, it’s vital to support those voices advocating fairer housing rights.

This also means rejecting austerity’s constant cuts to public services, funding social support for physical and mental health and ensuring that homes are safe, decent and secure, to create a safety net for those who are working to improve their communities.

The Conversation

Andrea Gibbons, Researcher in Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.