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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Are Britain’s political parties finally taking housing seriously?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.

Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.

While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.

But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.

It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.

New homes

So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.

Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.

The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.

This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.

The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.

Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.


A social system

A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.

The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.

Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.

It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.

Hope for the future

Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.

On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.

To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.

The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield and Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania.

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