Free Havens for Refugees (mostly by Pieter Cleppe)

Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of the think tank Open Europe, has written a piece advocating something akin to my idea of passport-free charter cities. (Also see my thoughts on charter city constitutions here and here,  my post about the abortive charter city experiment in Honduras, and my post “Make More Singapores!”) Cleppe advocates “free havens” in response to the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean. The rest of this post is by Cleppe (see the original piece here, it is reprinted with his permission), except a few comments of mine at the end:


Free havens as a solution to the refugee crisis

The latest tragedies in the Mediterranean once again highlight that migration is without any doubt one of the challenging issues of our time. Few dispute that it would be a bad idea to close borders completely. On the other hand, few support opening borders completely, recognising the obvious downsides to this.

The debate mostly focuses on the type and number of immigrants allowed into wealthier societies. There is very little debate about what to do with those wanting to leave their country when even the most generous quotas would have been filled.

Since 2011, 3 million people have already fled Syria, and 6.5 million are internally displaced. The EU hasn’t accepted more than 200.000 of them, while it faces ever increasing numbers of refugees, from Syria and other places, attempting to enter illegally. Even if Western countries drastically increased their willingness to welcome refugees, this would in no way serve demand. Nearly everyone agrees refugees should have the right to flee war-torn countries, but politically, there is no willingness to welcome everyone, whether one agrees with that or not.

The solution proposed below is a humble attempt to launch this debate and provide a more sustainable solution than the ones offered in the past.

One way to deal with this challenge has been to ignore it and to let people sort it out themselves. The result has been that the most vulnerable were delivered to human traffickers, at best reaching the Western world as an illegal immigrant, at worst finding the Mediterranean Sea as their graveyard.

A better solution has been to provide shelter for them in refugee camps. This clearly is an honourable attempt to minimise suffering. There are currently estimated to be up to 50 million refugees. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees offers them protection and life-saving supplies at refugee camps in more than 125 countries. Often, these camps aren’t temporary and sometimes conditions are horrendous. Often, refugees are also banned from becoming economically active. Thailand, for example, banned Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burmese border from leaving their camps in 2014.

One of the 120.000 Burmese refugees in Thailand describes how living in such a camp, with its travel and work restrictions, while being forced to be nearly completely dependent on outside help for food, shelter, protection and other basic needs, have adverse psychological and social effects on the refugees:

“Living in the camp is similar to living in prison because I can’t go outside or make my own decision. I can commute only in the camp. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire. If we go outside of the camp, Thai police will arrest us. In the long run, it affects not only my physical but also my mental health.” (Christine, 22, refugee, who spoke with Burma Link in Mae La refugee camp in May 2014)

Lebanon’s 470,000 Palestinian refugees, of whom over 50 percent live in 12 refugee camps who’re controlled by competing Palestinian armed groups, face restrictions to practice about 30 different professions. Whatever solutions one has for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, surely condemning generations of Palestinian refugees to this fate can’t be one of them.

A preferable solution could be to create “Free havens”: a refugee zone but then one with stable rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time.

This has been tried, but only very occasionally, although with extraordinary success. Most prominently in the last century, it was applied in Hong Kong, effectively a refugee zone, governed by the British rule of law, welcoming millions of Chinese wanting to fled war, totalitarian rule and turmoil in mainland China. Refugee camps at best offer refugees safety, but Hong Kong offered those Chinese refugees something which even the best refugee camps can’t offer: the opportunity to develop yourself.

Refugees, broadly defined as people fleeing from both war and economy misery, aren’t asking for a lot. They want a better life. Not necessarily a whole of a lot better. Only slightly better, if nothing else is possible. Refugees don’t only want shelter. They want to be able to develop themselves. Why would they need to wait before their country returns to the better or before wealthier countries decide they’re willing to welcome them?

A tiny percentage of land in the world is urbanized, perhaps around three percent. Would it really be so impossible to identify a place where no-one lives and welcome anyone willing to go there? Would it really be impossible to identify a place where really no-one would be bothered? If a city the size of Las Vegas can be successfully developed in the middle of a desert, there shouldn’t even be any requirements in terms of average temperature or access to the sea, although a climate like California would clearly be preferred.

It’s highly likely that such a place would be part of the territory of a State. But why would this State not allow “Free havens” to be hosted? Perhaps in some remote part of it, not to bother any of its citizens with any possible burden, especially if it would be financially compensated for it, for example by charity organisations wanting to offer refugees a better perspective or by companies investing in these Free havens, which could attract a lot of skilled individuals?

Why would companies not be interested to invest in these Free havens, just as they invest in the poorest parts of the world already, which often would not offer the same standards of justice and safety that such a Free haven would offer, given that these Free havens could be administrated by officials from countries with a certain level of rule of law?

Why would such a Free haven offer standards of justice and safety that are sufficiently high to make such a project succeed, so people would actually voluntarily want to go there, and companies would actually want to invest, thereby freeing up the resources needed to compensate the host State to actually allow such a Free haven to exist on its territory?

The answer is simple: For this project to be a success, it needs to become more safe than the most unsafe place in the world and its investment climate should beat the most horrible place on earth to do business, to attract those fellow human beings who actually have to survive there at the moment. Surely that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Would it really be so hard to do better than North Korea, Syria or Congo?

This project, which could be driven by the private sector, states, supranational organisations or various actors working together, doesn’t exclude everything that’s already happening: opening borders for trade, trying to develop poor countries, attempting to pacify violent conflicts, providing emergency aid to the most needed, allow more migrants to enter wealthy countries or develop refugee camps when no other option is there. This project simply offers a solution for immigrants who are not or insufficiently helped by what is already been done: the vast majority of them. If it is so simple, why not just take action?

So what is this again?

Let’s create “Free havens”: refugee zones but then with rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time

Which countries would allow such zones on their territory?

That’s a challenge the EU is currently facing, at least if it continue with its idea to establish immigrant-processing centres outside the EU. These offshore centres may be based in key transit countries such as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. France, Germany and Malta would reportedly be keen on the idea. When seeking refuge there, asylum seekers would get the chance to indicate in which EU country they’d like to apply for asylum, and at one point there may even be a system of forced “burden sharing”, which is however unlikely, given that national politicians in the EU rightly think such sensitive policies should be decided at the national level.

To convince them, Niger, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon or maybe even Morrocco would logically need to be compensated for hosting such centres. Given the huge amount of funds available in national and European aid budgets, reaching a compromise shouldn’t be impossible.

The only element the EU Commission would need to change in its current plan, is to combine its welcoming of refugees offshore with a rule of law – mission. The EU has some experience with “rule of law”-missions. Part of its EULEX-mission in Kosovo was to administer justice in the most delicate sectors over there. It must be said that there have been major problems with the implementation, but at least Kosovo has known some kind of stability. Either way, the main difference between Free havens and the mission in Kosovo would be that anyone moving to such a Free haven would do so voluntarily.

Has something like this ever been tried?

As I made clear earlier: yes, indeed. Hong Kong effectively served as such a Free haven to Chinese refugees. It probably also served to convince mainland-China to choose the path of international trade.

Why would companies want to invest there?

Fair question. The likes of Ikea or Coca Cola would certainly need to consider this carefully, but a safe investment zone governed by officials from countries with a relatively high level of rule of law surely should be able to compete with countries where a revolution or social unrest is always only around the corner?

How much would this cost?

The Belgian police and justice system costs around 3 billion euro per year, to serve 11 million people. With 10 billion per year, which is not even 10 percent of the EU’s 130 billion euro budget, 20 million refugees could already be welcomed, as 7 billion euro would be reserved for basic infrastructure. Also co-financing from investors could be attracted. Even if only 1 million out of 50 million refugees could be welcomed at first, it would be a massive step forward.

Anyone dealing with the EU budget knows massive spending improvements could be made. More than 270 billion euros are still being sent to agricultural landowners, including the Queen of England, between 2014 and 2010. Given how the EU’s agricultural policies have been hurting developing countries for decades, it wouldn’t be such a bad target to find funds.

Is it politically feasible?

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair once proposed off-shore asylum centres, the European Commission is keen them, several member states are open to something like this. The whole idea really comes down to accepting two realities: one reality is that many people currently want to flee their country. Another reality is that a large majority of the European population, rightly or wrongly, is only willing to accept a tiny part of all the refugees in the world. So welcoming them in a safe place somewhere else is not more than obvious solution.

What if it goes wrong?

Amnesty International has criticized the European Commission’s suggestion to externalize refugee policy, warning that there may be “human rights violations” in many countries outside of the EU. Fair point, but this is being addressed when EU countries themselves would run these zones. What if EU countries would still mismanage the whole thing, and these Free havens wouldn’t be so nice at all? Even in that case, given that every refugee would obviously only go there voluntarily, people would only come if the welcoming zone would be nicer than refugee camps or the places from which they are fleeing. Surely, it can’t be hard to beat these standards?

Won’t it lead to a brain drain?

In the event that these Free havens turn out to be a massive success and start attracting not only desperate refugees but also people that are already relatively well off, we would indeed face this discussion. I won’t go into detail here, but there are also upsides to intelligent people moving to work in wealthier countries, given the fact that they can send more money back home to help their families than if they had stayed.

Isn’t this “apartheid”?

When you accept that migration should be limited, you accept a certain form of “apartheid” already. To support unlimited migration is a fair position to hold, but has very little support. Why then not try to improve the fate of those who’re not welcome in wealthier countries?

Pieter Cleppe


There’s no explicit open borders advocacy here. (Open borders is a “fair position to hold, but has very little support.”) But if a global archipelago of passport-free charter cities were established, the right to emigrate would be effectively realized, even if the more general right to migrate were not. I’m all for it. And this is a good example of how human rights can be the thin end of the wedge for open borders, as religious freedom was once the thin end of the wedge, first for freedom of speech, expression, and conscience, then for democracy. If we take seriously the responsibility of the international community not to drown desperate people or trap them in places where their lives are in danger, we will be on a path that, if followed devoutly enough, leads quite far in the direction of open borders. It would be, among other things a fitting Western repentance for the blood of the Jews of the MS St. Louis.

Related reading

In addition to the links included by Smith in the leading para, the following might be of interest to readers:

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

8 thoughts on “Free Havens for Refugees (mostly by Pieter Cleppe)”

  1. I recently read of a new micro-nation proposed in no-man’s land between Serbia and Croatia: Liberland. According to http://www.parlamentnilisty.cz/arena/rozhovory/On-to-mysli-vazne-Vit-Jedlicka-zakladatel-noveho-statu-Liberland-promluvil-Zavadi-elektrinu-internet-vsechno-A-lide-se-k-nemu-hrnou-370917 (and with the help of Google Translate), “We do not plan any restrictions or border controls”.

    What’s more, it’s on the Danube, which is apparently considered an international waterway, perhaps giving hope for refugees who can make it to the Mediterranean. (Or at least to those who can afford passage on a vessel capable of making it safely into the Black Sea and up the Danube.)

  2. It sounds great. but .. But people haven’t grown enough to accept living with other human beings coming outside their homeland! What a pity, because as human brain, we’re using only a part of our force – physical and mental and leave a lot of “human capital” at those refugee camps!

  3. I really loved the idea.

    I think it would be preferable if those international zones were donated to the UN for administration.

    Furthermore, multiple international zones should be created around the world to serve different global cultural zones in order to avoid needless acrimony: Africa, Americas, Asia and Pacific, Europe and Eurasia and Middle East.

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