The Telecom Billionaire Who Is Showing Massive Support For Refugees

The largest refugee crisis and migration in Europe since World War II rages on, forcing tens of thousands of individuals and families to flee their homes. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of August 2015, more than 300,000 individuals have crossed over into Europe since the beginning of the year in an attempt to escape from violence and persecution in parts the MENA region (Middle East and Northern Africa). These numbers are harrowing given that the numbers represent an estimated 37% increase in overall migration from 2014, and this number is expected to rise. A large majority of individuals attempting to cross the Mediterranean come from Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, and Afghanistan.

There are particular risks and challenges this vulnerable population will face, particularly women and girls who represent a growing population of refugees in these crisis. While makeshift locations and camps are made available, without set structures and systems in place, the risks of sexual and gender based violence and discrimination is exacerbated. There is also the risk of high maternal and infant mortality rates among pregnant women who have no access to healthcare facilities, sex trafficking & prostitution and criminal gang activity.

It’s a story of heartbreak, and also one of humanity, as countries open up their borders to the growing number of refugees. Those with extensive state welfare programs for non-citizens like the United Kingdom, Sweden and Germany are seeing a higher influx of individuals, but it may all be an illusion, as refugees in their new homes have to face the pressures of competing with local citizens for jobs, schools and housing. While a lot has been done, many are calling out what appears to be a failure of global country governments to respond effectively to the magnitude of the crisis, and are also calling for creative and innovative, albeit unconventional ideas.

And then on September 1, 2015, Egyptian telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris announced his island nation plans on twitter.

The CEO of the Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Media and Technology who is believed to be worth an estimated $US3 billion spoke to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about his plans to solve the current refugee crisis. All it took was a picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying on the shores in Bodrum, southern Turkey after a boat carrying him, his mother and his brother drowned on the way to the Greek Island of Kos.

“I actually must admit, it’s the picture of Aylan that woke me up. It was a very touching picture”, Sawiris told Fareed Zakaria on an episode of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. 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…”

According to the interview, Sawiri’s plan was to find an uninhabited island in Greece or Italy, purchase it and build the legal structures before delving directly into the heart of what individuals need access to almost on a daily basis. “Then I would build a small temporary marina. I would build temporary housing and temporary school and temporary hospital. And then we will use these people and provide them jobs to build a new city on the island, to build this island. Because this war is not going to end in weeks or in months. It may be years even.”

Sawiris has called his plans a “crazy idea maybe“, but it has garnered the interest of the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, whose staff will meet with the businessman to discuss ways to help bring his plans to fruition.

What is yet to be seen is the support of the Greek government whom he has approached on the purchase of the island, which he plans to call “Aylan Island” in honor of Aylan Kurdi.