An Egyptian Billionaire Explains His Plan To Buy An Island For Refugees

First, get the consent of the government that owns the island. The rest is "very simple."
Egyptian telecommunications magnate Naguib Sawiris is providing new details about his plan to buy an island shelter for hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe.
Egyptian telecommunications magnate Naguib Sawiris is providing new details about his plan to buy an island shelter for hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

An Egyptian billionaire provided new details about his plan to buy an island to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other conflict-ridden nations, in an interview that will air on CNN Sunday.

Naguib Sawiris, who as CEO of the Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Media and Technology is believed to be worth at least $2.9 billion, spoke on an episode of "Fareed Zakaria GPS" that will air Sunday.

The first step of his plan to resolve the refugee crisis requires getting the consent of Greece or Italy, from whom he plans to purchase the island. Since the refugees do not have visas, there must still be a country willing to process their entry.

Sawiris appeared to imply that providing some kind of legal status for the refugees, even on an uninhabited island, would be harder than buying the island itself.

“You can't just take people and put them on an island that you bought that falls under jurisdiction,” Sawiris told Fareed Zakaria, according to a transcript of the interview.

“We need -- a passport control agency,” he added. “We need people to check them out. You need their data. You need customs.”

The next step is to identify and buy the island from Greece or Italy. Sawaris estimates there are dozens of relatively uninhabited islands that could accommodate refugees, he told Agence France-Presse.

The rest of the work, Sawiris said, he can handle on his own and is “very simple” by comparison.

Sawiris imagines building a temporary marina on the island to receive the refugees, as well as housing, schools and a hospital for the families to use when they arrive. Then he would give them jobs building a city on the island, because, he said, “this war is not going to end in weeks or in months. It may be years even.”

Sawiris first announced the island plan on Twitter on Sept. 1.

The tragic images of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned with his mother and brother attempting to reach Greece, inspired him to act, Sawiris confirmed. "This was the moment of what I said -- I mean I cannot just sit like that and just do nothing, you know, and pretend it's not my problem," he said.

Sawiris plans to name the island shelter "Aylan Island" in the boy’s memory.

While Sawiris’ proposal might normally be dismissed as fantastical, the failure of world governments to address what the United Nations is calling the worst global refugee crisis since World War II has opened the door to unconventional ideas.

The European Union announced a plan Wednesday to resettle 160,000 of the mostly Syrian refugees who have arrived in Europe in recent months among European Union nations.

But the EU’s new policy is unlikely to meet the scale of the refugee crisis. At least 350,000 people have migrated into Europe from January to August by official estimates -- a major increase from last year that is driven by the Syrian civil war and other conflicts. More than 2,600 have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe.

Germany alone expects to receive 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of the year.

Sawiris commended his native Egypt for taking in Syrian refugees, but agreed with the growing criticism of the wealthy Arab Gulf nations, who have not granted asylum to Syrian refugees even as they fund rebel groups in the country.

The Gulf nations “should really be pitching in or trying to help these poor people,” Sawiris said.

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