An Alternative to Refugee Camps


In the following article, Günter Nooke discusses sustainable development zones and recommends a UN Mission and Interim Administration in Libya, if stakeholders agree. Translated from German.

Migrant Cities Instead of Refugee Camps

02/13/2019 - By Günter Nooke

The continuing pressure of migration calls for intelligent solutions. One approach is to develop privately financed, self-governing cities in Africa, writes Günter Nooke, Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal Africa Commissioner in an exclusive ‘Weltwoche’ essay. 

The fate of Europe is decided in Africa. If this statement is correct, and if therefore migration pressure from the south challenges the stability of the EU, fundamentally new approaches to Europe’s Africa policy are needed. The fight against human trafficking through "arrival and disembarkation centers" directly in (North) Africa has failed; securing the external borders of the EU is not sufficient. Instead of development cooperation, endogenous economic development in Africa is required. Investments by private companies will, however, only take place if risks and opportunities in an uncertain environment can be adequately assessed. This is not the case in many African countries today.

Due to population development and educational innovation, there will be an increasingly large number of well-educated people in Africa looking for prospects for themselves and their families. They mainly move from the countryside to the cities. Eighty percent of these migrants remain in Africa. However at present, there is probably no democratic majority in any EU state to accept even the remaining 20 percent. 

So what does it mean to offer these people, housed in camps or living on the streets, not only tactically, but strategically, a choice? What can be a reasonable offer if there are not some 100,000 African economic migrants over the next three decades, but some 100 million? 

One way out of this strategic dilemma is to create geographically defined and transparently managed "islands of good governance". The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Economics to Paul Romer last year offers an opportunity for debate.  Several possible approaches, all of which have their respective justifications, should be examined more closely. In the spirit of Paul Romer, all of them are about endogenous economic growth. To achieve this, the people themselves have to contribute, be they average inhabitants of a country, extremely poor, migrants, or refugees.

The first approach is the widespread model of special economic zones (SEZs, including free trade areas, free ports, etc.) – production sites with their own legal framework guaranteed by the respective national government and, where appropriate, by other stakeholders – facilitating investments. However, well-functioning SEZs are mostly located in countries with a reasonably reliable national framework. If this does not exist, they are in no way out of the strategic dilemma. A positive example is in Morocco. In the so-called Automotive City, close to the Atlantic port of Tangier, more than 100,000 jobs have been created in recent years. This SEZ was set up with the highest degree of protection "by the private sector for the private sector" and quickly found investors with European carmakers. Others followed suit. 


Trading Freely

The second approach refers to suggestions as to how, in fragile countries or in the absence of "good governance", the necessary confidence in investors can be created by third-party authorities or guarantor powers. These proposals go back to Paul Romer himself and are today discussed under the heading of "Free Cities" or "Refugee Cities". The model in the older history is Magdeburg city law, created at the end of the 12th century, according to which the archbishop only guaranteed compliance with the rules and allowed the citizens within the city limits to pursue their craftsmanship, to found guilds and to trade freely. Recent history knows cities like Hong Kong or the adjacent Shenzhen. The former was British territory from 1898 to 1997, and the second was created in 1980 under Deng Xiaoping as the first "Special Economic Zone" of China, which was able to pursue a special economic policy and legislation. The example of Shenzhen shows how little the term neo-colonialism fits, since this development was “home-grown” and deliberate in order to attract investors. African leaders in particular often emphasized to me how much they were interested in the Chinese development model and wanted to learn from it.

A third approach avoids Romer's extraterritorial approach, making it less stringent but politically more feasible. Kilian Kleinschmidt, Joachim Rücker and Michael Castle-Miller have proposed Sustainable Development Zones (SDZs) at the sub-national level. This concept includes elements from the other two approaches and from the “Jordan Compact”, as proposed by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier. Refugees and migrants living in camps and other settlements are explicitly included. In particularly fragile countries, an SDZ can also be initiated and implemented "bottom-up" – that is at the municipal level and in urban centers – if the respective national government agrees. 

The activities of the Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris have so far received little international attention. More than ten years ago, he founded a city called Haram City southwest of Cairo. He is currently negotiating a similar project with the Senegalese President Macky Sall, not far from Dakar. Sawiris renounces the negotiation of new legal frameworks because he considers them similar and sufficient in almost all countries as long as they are enforced. The basic idea for such cities is similar: People who have a secure roof over their heads will take care of their own lives and that of their children. If, at the same time, the police do their work and provide security, then a positive urban development takes its course. In order for heads of state to concede hundreds of square kilometers for such city foundations, successful model cities and proven added value for the country are of course required.

Sawiris' idea also includes the permanent housing of migrants, in the ratio of 40 percent to 60 percent of the population, so that the respective government retains its self-interest and can show its citizens and voters success. For Germany, the support of the concept would be worth considering, especially if in such cities repatriations would be possible without problems. This, too, could, in general, reduce migration pressure on Europe. 

The model of "private cities" by Titus Gebel, who sees in them a large future market but, unlike Romer, renounces a state or public guarantor, is rather theoretical in nature. 

I believe that all these proposals require a substantive and intensive debate. They all deserve the reality check in well-commissioned pilot projects. Even if one considers the founding of new cities too ambitious, at least the third approach would allow us to consolidate our values and interests much better than if we continue to rely on UNHCR camps. 


No Ban on New Ideas

As of January, Germany is a member of the UN Security Council in New York for the next two years. Why not start a debate on this topic? Or even better, sponsor a resolution to set up an SDZ in Libya, for example? The necessary Blue Helmet mission coupled with an interim administration would need a United Nations mandate, EU support and funding and, above all, African states' approval. That could be an important milestone on the way to a truly European Africa policy. Germany should be prepared to take over the greater part of the funding. Investments by European companies in the SDZ should receive special risk protection in order to generate rapid regional growth from which the neighboring regions can benefit as well.

The "islands of good governance" presented here must not fall under a ban on new ideas, even if such Development Zones or Free Cities demand from a national government a certain temporal and spatial limitation of sovereignty.

To find out more about sustainable development zones, contact us today.