Meet the Dutchman planning a man-made migrant island in the middle of the Mediterranean

French riot police officers walk in the 'Jungle' migrant camp in Calais on October 27, during the operation to clear the camp. Theo Deutinger believes his project would offer a tangible alternative to these awful conditions

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Over the past year, the migrant crisis has shaken Europe to its foundations and played a key role in souring Britain’s relationship with its continental neighbours. A left-right split has opened up within the European Union over the means of settling the thousands of migrants pouring out of Syria and Africa, and so far no-one has been able to come up with a definitive solution.

Attempts to break the deadlock have thus far proved fruitless, resulting only in rancour and recrimination. But now a Dutch architect has come up with a solution which is at once staggeringly audacious and ridiculously simple: built a new island in the middle of the Mediterranean and turn it into a utopian haven for the thousands of people displaced by conflict in north Africa and the Middle East.

Theo Deutinger believes his island could be situated in the narrow stretch of water between Tunisia and Italy, and the space would be rented from both countries on a 99-year lease. It would offer initial capacity of 150,000 people, with scope for future expansion. European Union citizens as well as refugees would be welcome. With regular access by ferry, it would offer a safe, legal alternative for those migrants currently risking life and limb to reach European soil.

When you dip further into Deutinger’s project, which he has called Europe in Africa, it sounds like a vision that’s been wrenched from Nigel Farage’s nightmares. The virgin state would be ruled (and financed) by the European Union, and the EIA constitution would be based on European Union treaties, African Union treaties, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as international law.

Deutinger envisages self-government for his new island metropolis within 25 years, but it would remain a distinctly European project. The passport would be a brand-new European Union passport, the anthem would be that the European Union, the currency would (naturally) be the euro, and the football team would, say the founders, be a European Union soccer team, although quite how that would work is anyone’s guess.

The EIA website contains plans for Deutinger’s dream city, with a network of landmarks paying homage to cities around Europe and Africa. The stadium would be modelled on Real Madrid’s Bernabeu arena, the universities would channel the spirit of Oxford and the urban fabric would be drawn from Timbuktu. All would be connected by a river redolent of the Seine in Paris.

The plans available on the Europe in Africa website

Deutinger told talkRADIO that Europe in Africa “is not considered as a migrant center but as a city founding [or] society founding project. Its inhabitants have certain control and responsibility over the territory, can acquire ownership of land, can invest in a place and start a life there.

“EIA would not only be a social experiment but also at the forefront of urban design and architecture since it has to work entirely [self-sufficiently] from the mainland.”

Inspired by space

Deutinger says the project has been inspired by events throughout history, “from Carthage with its mixed constitution, to Hong Kong with its 99 years of rental contract, to the free-city of Tangier and finally the Netherlands, a country reclaimed from the sea.

“But the most inspiring example of all is a very recent one: the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS proves that it is possible to create new territory, new spaces and rooms that serve as a laboratory for human kind, financed and run by the international community.

“In outer space it is about creating an international laboratory that deals with the absence of gravity in a hostile space, while here on earth it is about the creation of an anti-gravitational political space, a save haven.

“EIA goes beyond the refugee crisis and the short-term events. Europe in Africa is a tabula rasa project comparable to the International Space Station and populating the Moon or Mars. We propose a sort of “Earth-landing”. Right now we are imprisoned on “spaceship Earth”; every square meter is owned by a state or a private entity. As soon as people are forced to move, they enter “foreign” territory. We are gridlocked.

“Europe in Africa is a proposal to carve out a yet undefined territory, a new land, a white spot. Yes it is about refugees and it is about helping the people but at the same time there is the ambition to establish a model and in the long run it is about a rescue boat for human kind.”

Some might suggest this all sounds a little romantic; references to the endless promise of space aren’t likely to cut much ice with pragmatists who believe the answer to the migrant crisis lies in cold, calculating realpolitik. But Deutinger believes that, now all the conventional avenues have been exhausted, it’s time for a blank state.

 “An artificial island has no burden from past like history, ownership, culture,” he tells us, “it only has the future. In this way it is as the place that is most similar to the situation the refugees are in.”

The Tunisian Plateau is seen as an ideal location; a gateway to both Europe and Africa, far enough from conflict yet close enough for refugees to retain a sense of home. Deutinger says that the new country would be legally bound to Europe but culturally bound to Africa.

The construction process would actually be fairly simple, Deutinger insists. Piled-up rocks and sand would be reinforced by concrete – although ocean engineers would be needed to find the ideal construction spot. The shallow seabed in this stretch of ocean would make it easier for the dredgers.

Concerns

Yet it seems there are three clear problems with Deutinger’s vision. Firstly the island’s location, close to the crisis-ravaged states of Tunisia and Libya, could make it a prime jump-off point for terrorists and illegal immigrants looking for a bridge between Africa and Europe. Then there is the possibility that the new city-state, far from reducing the number of deaths in the Mediterranean, would only encourage more people to undertake the kamikaze Mediterranean odyssey.

Finally there is the reaction of those states which have been vying for European Union entry for years to a brand-new state which is granted the golden ticket from the start. It’s hard to imagine the governments of Ankara or Belgrade would be thrilled about the idea.

Addressing the first point, about security, Deutinger points out that the European Union maintains a permanent presence in the area through its Frontex operation, and even suggests the EIA could turn into the main harbor for Frontex. However, when we ask whether the island would become a magnet for illegal immigrants, Deutinger is more circumspect. “This is a likely scenario,” Deutinger admits, “but ideally the island is a place nobody wants to leave because of being granted from day one with residence and working permissions.”

This seems a slightly dangerous assumption to make, but we press on. Turning to the question of whether a new sanctuary in the middle of the Mediterranean will encourage those suicidal crossings, Deutinger is bullish. “The people can officially use the ferry to the island from the African coast,” he says, “so they don’t have take risks to get to the island.”

When we ask about the reception the new state would receive in Turkey and other wannabe EU member states, Deutinger says: “Since it is a materialization of the European Union’s spirit and a testing ground of its values, I don’t think Turkey would have an argument about its membership status.”

At risk of being cynical, it seems there are an awful lot of assumptions and best-case scenarios woven into the plans here; it would certainly be interesting to hear what Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the embattled President of Turkey, thought of Deutinger’s last point. Our interviewee clearly prefers to focus on the better angels of human nature, but one wonders whether his vision would stand up to reality – or whether it would, in fact, prove as rickety as those wooden boats bobbing up and down the Mediterranean’s highway of death.

Deutinger remains hugely confident about the project's chances of success, telling us that many people have subscribed to the project via its website. He adds that “we got some attention also from the side of the European Union, but nothing concrete enough. We did not talk to any officials yet.” Thus it seems the project is still a long way off inception, let alone any sort of tangible progress.

Deutinger’s plans are admirable for their scope, and the faith they place in man’s ability to bury differences and come together in pursuit of a higher goal. Yet at a time when the EU is under pressure like never before, its very future being called into question, even the bloc’s staunchest defenders must doubt its ability to dredge utopia from the depths of the sea.

To find out more on Theo Deutinger's project or get involved, visit www.europeinafrica.com.