My op ed that no one wanted to publish.
After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France closed her border. Broader anti-refugee sentiment in Europe is increasing, leaving four million Syrian refugees in a vise grip, with Assad and Isis on one side and Europe’s closed borders on the other. Innovative solutions are needed now more than ever.
Here’s an idea: startup cities for refugees.
Seventy years ago millions of refugees fled the Chinese civil war for the relative safety of a rocky peninsula called Hong Kong, which welcomed 1.5 million of them. Europe could learn from Hong Kong’s success and help create a startup city, a beacon of hope on a Mediterranean island, beckoning refugees from Syria and elsewhere by offering opportunities for a better future.
Hong Kong’s success demonstrates that a small plot of land combined with institutions that protect economic freedom is an attractive destination. A startup city for refugees could be a lasting solution to for refugees fleeing a seemingly intractable civil conflicts. Instead of refugee camps crowded with tattered tents, a startup city would offer refugees proper homes, education, and jobs.
A successful startup city would need some autonomy from its host country: first, a simplified immigration process and, second, sufficient economic freedom to ensure that refugees want to move there. Without such autonomy, refugees would be unable to legally enter or work.
A startup city would welcome those fleeing war and persecution. However, refugees would need a streamlined process to get work permits and legal residency. At the same time, travel outside the city to the rest of the EU would be restricted. Refugees would gain a new legal status, but would not be closer to legal entry into Europe. The immigration process would need to screen refugees to ensure extremist elements are unable to enter.
The startup city would also need economic freedom. It would compete with Europe as a destination for refugees. To appeal to them, the city would need jobs, housing, and schools. Only with the ability to trade, start businesses, invest, and enforce contracts, will those opportunities exist. For example, business licensing must be simplified, approval of construction permits expedited, tax rates lowered, and restrictive regulations such as minimum-wage requirements eliminated.
A special economic zone is the easiest way to speed immigration and simplify regulation. The host country could create an autonomous regulatory body to govern the zone while private investors provide the infrastructure. The investors will reap profitable returns through the increased value of the land on which the infrastructure is built.
A startup city could also contribute financially to host country. Economic freedom and the migration of refugees would generate wealth. Taxes, albeit low, would continue to be paid. Given the dire fiscal conditions of Southern Europe, any windfall would be a boon.
Of course, there would remain complex logistical issues. Refugees would need temporary food and shelter when they first arrive. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could help coordinate temporary aid. Also, constructing power and sewage in a short amount of time would be an engineering feat.
Luckily, however, the private sector is meeting the challenge. Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian businessman, has pledged $100 million toward buying a Greek island to build a startup city for refugees. He has stated that he will provide them with schools, homes, hospitals, and jobs.
Currently the barrier to action is Greece and the EU. It is up to those governments to allow Sawiris and other private individuals to take action. Greece and the EU should commit to creating a special economic zone to help refugees and set a date when such a zone can be established.