The Egyptian billionaire proposing to buy a Greek or Italian island to host thousands of refugees and ease the burden on Europe says he is yet to receive a reply from the two countries over the offer. In an interview with Newsweek, he also challenged those who criticize his plan to come up with a better idea or "shut the fuck up."
Naguib Sawiris, CEO of Cairo-based Orascom Telecom Media and Technology and Egypt's third-richest man, with a net-worth of at least $2.9 billion, has promoted the idea of "Aylan Island," named in memory of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who was pictured washed up on a Turkish beach after a failed attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos by boat.
He originally tweeted about his "crazy plan" to host up to 100,000 refugees on an island on September 1. He says that he has written letters to the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, and Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, but has not even received a response to confirm receipt of the letters.
"It has been five days since I sent the letters and I have not received a response, not even an acknowledgement of receipt," says Sawiris, 61, in a phone call from Montenegro on Friday.
"I sent a letter saying that I need them to provide me permission to take the refugees there and if they have an island to sell, I am a buyer," he adds. "It would help me much and what I need from them is the approval to get the refugees there and the administrative support."
Sawiris's idea, inspired by the images of the plight of the refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and in Hungarian camps, includes the building of infrastructure such as housing, hospitals and schools for inhabitants on any island. He says that he is willing to spend as much as $200m on the plan and has received a raft of offers to help build or fund the island and make it a reality.
"100 to 200 million dollars. I think that's how much it would cost me. It would be over time," he says. "With the cost of building, houses, schools, it could be more but I would just do it until the money is done."
"I have got around 10,000 emails. Many people said they would volunteer to come and help me build this city, I have two people saying they want to donate $10m and so on," he adds. "In my office, I have [my staff] collecting all the requests so when we start we can call on these people."
The support the idea requires is mainly administrative because the islands will fall under the jurisdiction of Rome or Athens, Sawiris says. He claims to only need the permission, customs and passport control and a small unit for security. However, he is yet to identify a target island for the project and a sizeable Greek island such as Omfori is listed on Private Islands Online for as much as $55 million. This represents more than a quarter of what Sawiris is willing to spend on the project, and it only has planning permission to build on 20% of its 1,112 acres.
The search for an island may prove to be Sawiris's biggest challenge both financially and practically but he is confident that the project is possible as it would also have practical benefits for the countries, particularly Greece.
"I know that the Greek government owns a lot of islands that are uninhabited and they need the money. It would be doing the EU a favour, that is giving [Greece] the money anyhow," he says. "So it would look good that they are helping a humanitarian idea. It would be saving the EU from a burden and helping to do something [about the refugee crisis]."
Germany is currently trying to persuade other EU countries to take greater numbers of refugees. Around 800,000 asylum applications are expected in Germany this year, and although Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has said it can take 500,000 per year, German reception centers are currently being overwhelmed by the number of arrivals. France has agreed to take 24,000 Syrian refugees, while the U.K. has said it will take 4,000 per year.
"It lives and dies with the support of the Italian government or the Greek government," says Sawiris of his plan to house 100,000. If they don't give me the support which means providing the administrative support, then the idea will die. I hope the politicians start to think this is a serious guy and that this is not such a bad idea."
Sawiris rules out the option of taking refugees to Egypt, as he would not get the permission, or Jordan, as the country has already absorbed more than a million refugees. He has also received offers of small islands elsewhere, such as one in the Maldives, but he says these plots of land are too small and he wants to help the refugees in the countries they have fled to. They would be transported to any potential island by cruise ships that Sawiris would hire.
He adds that he would himself live on the island, traveling back and forth to oversee its development with his team. He passionately challenges any critics who say his idea is unrealistic to come up with a better plan to help the refugees.
"I would tell them that's what I came up with, if you have a better idea, you are welcome. The rule in my corporate world, anybody who criticized my solution and does not have any better solution, I would tell them to shut the fuck up."Try Newsweek: Subscription offers