In the past six months, the Syrian refugee crisis has prompted a variety of reactions—outrage at the lack of politically viable options, serious discussions among world leaders, and occasional outpourings of public support in both the U.S. and Europe.
Jason Buzi, a millionaire San Francisco real-estate investor, had, perhaps, a more unusual reaction: He wants to create a new country for refugees to live in. Buzi’s proposal—called Refugee Nation—might seem outlandish and is still just a concept, but it’s kicked off discussions about long-term solutions to the global refugee crisis. On Thursday, he started a campaign to crowdfund $3 billion dollars on Indiegogo and GoFundMe (Kickstarter rejected him) that would mostly be used to “purchase land with the intent of creating cities, chartering territories, and establishing a new nation that would accept any and all refugees.”
I recently spoke with Buzi about Refugee Nation. The following transcript of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Jason Buzi: I first had this idea seven or eight years ago, and I remember at the time just talking to a few people about it and sort of not doing anything with it. I had a friend of a friend who was working in some capacity for an NGO that deals with refugees. She hadn't had any hands-on experience, hadn't been to any of the refugee camps, and I remember running it by her and she was like, “They'll never go for that.” And I thought, that's an interesting response because instead of having a discussion about the pros and cons and merits of it, she's dismissed it out of hand.
Last year, I've been thinking about it as the refugee crisis has been in the news so much : People drowning at sea, people being killed trying to flee the civil war in Syria right now, and also in different places. So I got together with somebody that built my website and first I had to write my proposal, I put that out there, and that was in June. We were fortunate enough to be covered in The Washington Post in July. I think it's a really opportune time to think about having permanent solutions to the refugee crisis, which I don't hear a lot of discussion around.
Lam: Tell me a little bit more about your background. What do you do?
Buzi: I'm a real-estate investor. That's what I do full time. That's what I do for a living. Last year, after I had a couple successful deals, I did something called “Hidden Cash.” I got a lot of publicity for that, even though I wasn't seeking it. I started out doing it anonymously as a fun way to give back and that went on for a few months. I try to give back in different ways, like charity, I sponsor different things, I've volunteered overseas. I've had a lot of international experiences, which has also led to me having this perspective. I spent my childhood in Israel, I taught English in Taiwan, I volunteered at a library in Ghana, West Africa, and I did a lot of traveling all over the world.
Lam: Why are you taking Refugee Nation to the next level? It started as an idea that you were putting out there, and then you started to really invest in it. Why did you push it to this scale, that you're now in the billion-dollar fundraising territory?
Buzi: It's going to cost billions to do this. Realistically, it's not going to be inexpensive, and it's not going to be achieved with this crowdfunding campaign. Hopefully that will raise some more money to promote it further and raise awareness about it. To create a new country, obviously, it's a big undertaking. I just think it's so important right now that people are becoming aware of this crisis, that we start talking about permanent solutions.
The temporary solution right now, there's a lot of proposals right now to provide aid, and those are all great, but that's like buying a homeless person a sandwich. That's great, you fed them right now but what's going to happen tomorrow? What's going to happen next week? What's going to happen next year? We have to think about how we can solve this problem permanently, and not just for one group, or the small percentage of the refugees right now that are lucky enough to be taken in by Western countries, which is less that 5 percent. There’s 60 million people, and we're taking in maybe a few hundred thousand in the West. That's not a permanent solution for everybody. There's only a few permanent solutions for everyone. The way I see it, Refugee Nation is the only one that's right now politically feasible at this point in time, out of the other permanent solutions.
Lam: What are some of the other solutions that you see as permanent solutions?
Buzi: There was an article in The Atlantic a few days ago about getting rid of borders, having no borders at all. And if you had no borders, if you had no visas, if you had no immigration control at all between countries—then you wouldn't need a separate country for refugees because people could just come and go and wherever they are they'll have rights. Obviously, at least to me, it would be obvious that this cannot just happen overnight. So that's not something that's politically feasible at this point in time. I mean, this could be in some future world.
Another solution is a quota system where every country would take in a certain percentage of the refugees, but that percentage would have to add up to 100 percent. Because right now, we say we'll take in 10,000, and maybe France will take in 50,000. It's not solving it for the vast majority of refugees—just for a certain percentage. Most of these people, they can't work, they don't have citizenship, or at least they are restricted from a lot of professions in the countries where they are right now.
In the most ideal case, there wouldn't be any wars and there wouldn't be anymore refugees being created and everybody would be able to go back to where they came from if they wanted to. But that's not politically feasible either.
So those three ideas: the quota system, no borders, or the end of all wars and conflict. Those are the other three alternatives that I see as a permanent solution. Those three are not politically feasible.
Lam: So you see Refugee Nation basically as the most realistic solution?
Buzi: I really do. And even though it may sound grandiose to create a new country, I actually think it's the most practical, realistic, solution there is to the refugee crisis.
There may be other solutions for one group, or a certain percentage, but to solve the crisis that's affecting now 60 million refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—all over the world. That's what I see as the most practical, because there is so much land out there that's available. Some of it's for sale, some of it could be for sale.
Take for example islands: There are thousands of islands that are right now being offered for sale, the majority of them are uninhabited. I could buy an island for cheaper than a condo in San Francisco or New York, but the issue is a political one: I have an island but I need sovereignty, and then there's the practical considerations of creating infrastructure, communication, transportation, and so on. But, the land is there. The land is available.
Lam: Besides islands, are there other areas of the world that you see as a potential for a “Refugee Nation”?
Buzi: Even the most crowded countries, there's vast areas of open space. China, which is the most populated country in the world, has areas of uninhabited territory or sparsely inhabited territory. Here in California, most of the population is in the Los Angeles and San Francisco area, but once you go north of San Francisco you have millions of acres that are very sparsely inhabited.
I'm not suggesting China or California. I'm just using it as an example that even in places that have high population density, once you go outside the city, there's perfectly good land that's available. So countries that would be more likely to sell land for this purpose would probably be smaller countries, not big countries like the U.S. or China. Finland is one example, because Finland—where I also spent the summer when I was younger working in a hotel—has a lot of unused territory that's perfectly usable for living. It's not freezing year-round, there's lakes, there's rivers, there's forest, there's good land. And it's a small country of about 5 million people, so it's not politically unthinkable that they would sell some territory.
There's also the option of a small island country in Dominica in the Caribbean, or Micronesia in the Pacific, are a couple of examples. They're island countries, but the entire population is less than 100,000 and they are the size of Singapore which has over 5 million people. So they could potentially accept a large number of refugees. I think smaller countries could do it for both financial reasons and creating political goodwill. And then we have countries like the Philippines and Indonesia that have thousands of uninhabited islands for sale. But, just because they would sell me an island doesn't mean that I can declare a country there without the political agreements in place. Those are the issues that you come up against. The circumstances exist to solve this problem, we just need the political will.
Lam: So why $3 billion and why crowdfund it? Where would this money go? And then on the issue of sovereignty, the legal challenges, you say it's a political challenge but isn’t it more than that?
Buzi: Well, as far as where the money will go towards, I think we're designating the first million to put on a conference, put on a documentary, and promote the movement. And everything that we raise above that is going specifically to buying islands or land with the aim to get sovereignty for it. Crowdfunding is the best way right now to raise awareness and raise funding for it. Even if we raise $3 billion it's not going to be enough to solve the problem for all refugees, but it's a good start. Even if we raise a few million, and raise awareness on it, and get more people talking about it, and are able to petition and get more governments on board, that's also a good start. Anything we can do to further this along is helpful.
Lam: Who are some of your supporters?
Buzi: We've spoken with Alexander Betts, who is at Oxford, I'm speaking with Professor James Hathaway from University of Michigan. I'm speaking with Professor Geza and he's with the Netherlands. I spoke with another professor in the Netherlands who's very supportive, so those are the academics that we've reached out to. We don't have anyone's endorsement yet, it's a bit early on to give names but we are arranging meetings with elected officials here in the U.S. We're starting to reach out to foreign governments as far as buying the land and trying to get some sovereignty. I've spoken with the World Bank and they were pretty encouraging and they said that this is a proposal that's definitely worth spreading and discussing.
Lam: Betts, the director of Oxford University’s Refugee Crisis Center, wrote in The Guardian that one of his concerns with Refugee Nation is that “the international community’s track record of artificial nation-building is not strong.” He also wrote that the concept is based on exclusion rather than inclusion.
Buzi: The thing with Refugee Nation is that you can be totally anti-immigration and still support Refugee Nation. You can be pro-immigration, but feel that we still need a permanent home that's an automatic home for any refugee.
I'm Jewish, I could go live in Israel, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. is saying I can't live here or that I have to go live in Israel. I choose to live here, I prefer to live here, but just because I have another home that I can go to, and could be like a home for me and people of a similar background to me, doesn't mean that I choose to go live there. It doesn't preclude it. You could have a Refugee Nation, but that doesn't mean that if you're a refugee, you can't still immigrate to France or the UK or the United States or Canada.
Refugee Nation guarantees that if you're a refugee, you will automatically have a home and have the same basic rights that everyone has: citizenship, basic freedoms, the ability to work in any profession you choose, education for your children.
Lam: But another key issue that your critics point out is that refugees want to move to an established country for the infrastructure and economy and all the things that nation already has. Moving refugees to an island means they might just be forgotten by the world. What are your thoughts on that?
Buzi: To me, that's a lot better than the current status quo. The current status quo is that you have people living a lot of times in tents, for many years, decades, and even generations. When we build this infrastructure of a new country, you're also creating a lot of jobs by doing that, so that's a very big part of it that people forget. A new economy through businesses and investment coming in, and a lot of good will from the rest of the world, I think, with foreign governments and NGOs wanting to help. I think that will stimulate the economy further.
Lam: Have you heard any feedback from refugees who have heard of your idea?
Buzi: Oh yeah, we've heard from many. We have over 17,000 followers on our Refugee Nation Facebook page.
Through social media, they message me personally and they've been very supportive. We've had a lot of really positive messages from former and current refugees saying, “Okay, this is great what you're trying to do.”
You know, to speak frankly, it's kind of an outside-the-box idea right now. Right now, it's an idea. Realistically, refugees are not thinking, “Okay, this guy has an idea that may come true and this would be great.” They're thinking about how they can get their family to safety. That's what they're honestly preoccupied with. They don't have the luxury of thinking about something that's an idea that's not concrete yet.
A lot of times people can't see things until they are concrete in front of them. I could have a business idea, it could be the greatest business idea ever and people would say, “Okay, that's interesting,” and you put it in front of them and then they either respond or don't respond when it actually becomes real. Most refugees right now don't have the luxury of thinking too much about an idea. They are looking at concretely, “What should we do right now?”