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A state of their own: Could 'Refugee Nation' be an answer?

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Michael Probst/AP

(Read caption) Asylum seekers walk outside the central refugee camp in Giessen, Germany, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.

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A real estate mogul in California has a unique solution to the global refugee crisis: offer refugees a state of their own. 

Jason Buzi, an Israeli-born Silicon Valley property developer, wants to provide land to the world’s nearly 20 million migrants who have sought asylum outside of their countries of origin. The so-called Refugee Nation, Mr. Buzi writes in a proposal, is a “simple” answer to a growing crisis: “for the millions of stateless people around the world – a state of their own!”

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Potential critics have not dismissed the idea.

In an op-ed for The Guardian, Alexander Betts, director of the Refugees Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, writes that Buzi’s conception of the humanitarian crisis is “spot on.”

Mr. Betts applauds Buzi’s notion that refugees could govern their own communities: “This recognition of the autonomy of refugee communities and their capacity to be economically and politically self-sufficient is long overdue,” he writes. “Too often, it has been assumed that refugees are dependent upon humanitarian assistance beyond the emergency phase of a crisis, when in practice they can exercise political and economic agency. Around the world, research has shown that under the right conditions, refugees are capable of building representative political structures as well as meaningfully engaging with markets.”

Betts does caution against the concept of isolating an already marginalized population, writing that “the idea is premised upon exclusion rather than inclusion. It implies that refugees should not be integrated within existing political communities but confined to separate communities. In discussion on social media this has been likened to a leper colony.”

In the written proposal for Refugee Nation, Buzi suggests several options for refugee outposts. The “easiest and fastest” option, he writes, would be a sovereign nation that elects to take in refugees. He suggests Dominica in the Caribbean or Micronesia in the Pacific, both of which have relatively low populations within a few hundred square miles of space.

"It's almost shocking to me that nobody's talking about this as a solution," Buzi says in an interview with The Washington Post. "We have a lot of stateless individuals all over the world right now," he says. "The idea is, if we could give them a state of their own, at least they'd have a place to live in safety and be allowed to live and work like everybody else."

Still, the specifics are unclear, and artificial nation-building is problematic. Most people, if given a choice, would choose to stay with friends, and family, as well as favor the option of repatriating, should conflict at home settle.

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“A human being has his life plans … and wants to go to the country where he has the best future,” says Alberto Achermann, a migration law expert at the University of Bern in Switzerland in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. While relocation would help correct some of the dysfunction in Europe's current system, it overlooks human intention, he says. “That is the biggest problem with all of these redistribution plans in Europe.”

Buzi says he sees no other comprehensive solution being seriously discussed, calling efforts thus far “piecemeal.” In his manifesto, he cites refugee camps that at best temporarily relieve hunger and the need for shelter on the road to asylum, and at worst, provide such services across lifetimes, and generations. He writes that such camps “do not begin to address the core problem. The camps’ host countries almost never offer refugees any citizenship, or even the right to work."

The Bay-Area real estate investor previously worked on another splashy social justice project, albeit on a much smaller scale. Known around San Francisco, and then all over the web, as the “Hidden Cash” guy, Buzi hid nearly $15,000 in small sums around California cities and tweeted clues about where to find the money. He encouraged participants to then “pay it forward”.

He is using that profile to spread awareness about this new undertaking. Buzi says in an interview with the Post that he has already put between $10,000 and $15,000 of his own money into setting up a team and website to help promote his idea of Refugee Nation, and he plans to put in much more to help the idea gain traction. "I'm not a billionaire," he says. "But I'm in a place where I can spend some of my own resources to try and promote it and help it along."

Action on the refugee crisis is urgently needed. As the Monitor previously reported, the number of refugees arriving to Europe by sea this year stood at 46,500 at the end of May, compared to 41,243 in the same time period last year, an increase of 12 percent. The number of those who have died is up 20-fold. In lieu of a redistribution plan for refugees to the European Union, which was slated to come in July but didn’t, Refugee Nation is offering a change in the conversation.

James Hathaway, the director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum at the University of Michigan Law School says of Buzi's proposal to the Post, "What I love about it is his sense of moral outrage about a problem that could be fixed but no one is fixing."