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Can “charter cities” be a solution to the migration and refugee crises?

The United Nations projected that by 2050 2,5 billion people will have moved to cities, 90% of which are situated in Africa and Asia. Moreover, according to the UN, the major urban growth which will take place in India, China and Nigeria will account for 35% of the anticipated urban population growth in 2050. Many of the people moving to cities will end up in slums or will have to migrate if innovative solutions are not swiftly found.

In 2018, Paul Romer won the Nobel prize in economy for his work on endogenous growth theory published in 1990. A decade ago, he pioneered the concept of “charter cities”, which seems to have gained a surge of interest in the past years. According to Paul Romer, developing countries could yield a piece of its land to one or a group of developed countries which could build a new city from scratch on that land. The laws of the developing country would not apply in the city, nor the laws of the developed country managing it, but instead a whole set of new rules would be developed or imported and adapted. The basic idea being that people could choose to live in a charter city that would provide the essential rules and facilities required for economic growth. The idea according to which by building a highly developed city in a developing country, citizens of that country and neighbouring countries would decide to move to the new city instead of migrating towards developed countries. Inhabitants that do not agree with the rules established in the city could leave, assuming they have the economic resources to relocate somewhere else.

The idea has been widely criticized, first and foremost because of its neo-colonial approach. The implementation in practice of the idea of “charter cities” raises many issues than have not been answered so far, but that must, for it to even be considered as an option. Will “charter cities” really be open to “everyone” or will they be built on the model of gated communities for the rich of a particular country or region, or on the contrary, will they become corporations’ heavens where the poorest would give up their rights for a factory job? What would happen if “unauthorised” people try to enter the city’s border? And what if the developing country decides to annul the deal? The idea has never really materialise so far, even though it came close to doing so in Madagascar and Honduras.

Following the outbreak of the migration and refugee crises, the idea of “charter cities” gained a new momentum. Germany's Africa Commissioner, Gunter Nooke, expressed his interest in building “charter cities” as a way to curb immigration towards Europe. Surprisingly, the idea found some support in Africa such as for example, Carol Musyoka, an academic at Strathmore Business School in Kenya which sees an opportunity to palliate to weak governance in some African countries.

Lastly, the humanitarian community showed interest for “charter cities” as a way to solve the refugee crisis. The idea to turn refugee camps into “Refugee Open Cities” was put forth by several former UN officials such as Kilian Kleinschmidt who used to manage the second largest refugee camp in the world. However, it seems that Romer’s concept of “charter cities” have radically shifted from a place people could chose to join or leave to a coercive plot of land when it comes to tackling the “refugee issue”. In 2016, he stated the following:

“The refugee issue is a huge problem, but there are possible solutions. Sweden, a sparsely populated country, would be able to rent a land area of Hong Kong’s size. There could receive millions of people who must support themselves and not have to cost anything. […] It is important then that this free zone shall be counted as an independent unit, with its own laws and rules – not as part of Sweden. Those who live there will not be Swedish citizens, but to live his life completely separate from the rest of society. […] This means that wages can be lower, longer working hours – and so on. In Sweden should there be strict border control, making it impossible for the free zone inhabitants to move to the other side of the border. They are, quite simply, had to cope financially themselves”.

These ideas are dangerous and terrifying and have little to do with the primary ideas of a “charter city” Romer put forth a decade ago.

When creative thinking is needed to quickly adapt to the predicted urban boom in the coming decades or when managing human mobility, we should still be very careful to keep the Human at the centre of our decisions and not to overlook key ethical questions that are already arising.

Author: Dr. Fanny Tittel-Mosser

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