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An Egyptian Billionaire Says He's Shopping for a Private Island for Refugees

Naguib Sawiris says he wants to dub the island Independence, and build a shelter for refugees halfway between the homes they're fleeing and their destinations in Western Europe.
September 4, 2015, 10:22pm
Photo par Gian Ehrenzeller/EPA

Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris says he's in the market for a private Island. But it's not for himself — it's to create a space for refugees and migrants fleeing across the Mediterranean.

Sawiris first announced his intentions on Twitter this week and has since expanded on the plan in several media interviews. He also appears to be fielding proposals for specific islands from his Twitter followers.

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"Greece or Italy sell me an island," Sawiris tweeted Tuesday. "I'll call its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country."

In the last six months, nearly 137,00 people have fled across the Mediterranean, and about 2,300 have died making the journey. The flood of refugees and migrants is part of a larger regional crisis: civil wars, poverty, and political turmoil from Libya to Afghanistan are causing millions to flee.

As a result, asylum requests in Europe are skyrocketing. Germany, the leading destination for refugees fleeing to the continent, expects to receive 800,000 asylum applications by the end of 2015, nearly four times as many as in 2014. In August, the European Commission earmarked 2.4 billion euros to border states like Greece and Italy, where most of the migrants come ashore.

Greece or Italy sell me an island,ill call its independence and host the migrants and provide jobs for them building their new country

— Naguib Sawiris (@NaguibSawiris)September 1, 2015

Crazy idea .. Maybe but at least temporary until they can return to their countries ??!!

— Naguib Sawiris (@NaguibSawiris)September 1, 2015

Sawiris' plan would house those refugees halfway in between the war zones they are fleeing and their final destinations in Western Europe.

"You have dozens of islands which are deserted and could accommodate hundreds of thousands of refugees," Sawiris said in an interview with AFP on Thursday. "And if things improve, whoever wants to go back [to their homeland] goes back."

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Sawiris also promised to provide "temporary shelters to house the people" and to pay the refugees to "build housing, schools, universities, hospitals."

The scion of Egypt's wealthiest family estimated that an island would cost him between $10 million and $100 million. With a net worth of $2.9 billion, Sawiris is the head of a prominent political party, the owner of telecom giant Orascom TMT, and a high-profile supporter of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

But even if Sawiris is serious about his supposed plan, it wouldn't address the underlying problems that have created the crisis.

"Only governments can prevent and stop wars," Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman from the UN Refugee Agency, told VICE News. "And governments have a responsibility to protect refugees fleeing across their borders."

Related: Drowned Syrian Toddler Is Buried in Kobane

Sawiris' proposal is attracting widespread interest. Muad Mohamad Zaki, the son of a prominent businessman in the Maldives, offered up his own family's island to Sawiris.

"If he is interested he can use our island… though it's only 9.1 hectares," he told VICE News, adding that the Maldives has several other unpopulated islands that could be used. Zaki emailed Sawiris on Thursday, he said, but has not yet heard back. "If he's serious, we can arrange a meeting here with the government."