Riches and refugees: People ask about buying Pyramiden weekly; here’s one guy’s reason – and what he’s eyeing now

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(This is a guest column by Jiwoon Hwang)

I’m a newcomer from South Korea. I graduated Draper University’s international entrepreneurship program in Silicon Valley, attended an entrepreneurship program in South Korea and used to enjoy making robots.

When I was traveling Europe, I decided to visit Svalbard. I visited here two months ago. What amazed me was its great scenery and its open-border policy welcoming every world citizen. After going through a seven-week entrepreneurship bootcamp in Silicon Valley, I decided to develop Svalbard as international hub of creativity, entrepreneurship and cosmopolitanism.

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Lenin has been looking over a lot of empty buildings in Pyramiden for decades and plenty of people think they should be more than tourist attractions. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The most likely candidate for the place seemed to be Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining city that used to house up to 1,000 inhabitants and is owned by the Russian state-owned company Trust Arktikugol. But after discussing the possibility with locals after arriving here and learning the company was reluctant to sell part or all of the settlement there now seems to be a more appropriate target – although the goals remain the same.

The open-border policy of Svalbard is one of the most distinctive aspects of the archipelago. Although the Svalbard Treaty only refers to citizens of signatory countries having the right to abode, “it has been chosen policy so far” to welcome everyone. Among the results of that is a lot of Thai people living in Longyearbyen although Thailand is not a signatory.

Svalbard is the only civilian settlement that do not require a residence permit (visa) for any nationalities. The only other such areas accessible to humans are Antarctica, international waters and outer space (including the moon and Mars), which are somewhat more difficult to settle. But it’s likely most of the world’s citizens haven’t heard of Svalbard, let alone its visa-free opportunities.

There’s a futuristic concept called Seasteading, establishing permanent settlements on international waters outside the jurisdiction of any state. Seasteading is supported by predominantly libertarians and futurists. There was a start-up called Blueseed in Silicon Valley that raised around $10 million and tried to float a cruise ship 12 nautical miles outside the shore of Silicon Valley for international entrepreneurs to start a company without a U.S. work visa. Workers would commute to Silicon Valley via ferry ship using short-term Business Visitor status if needed.

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A map shows countries above and below the world’s GDP per capita, currently estimated at $10,700. Blue countries are above average, while orange countries are below. Map by IMF.

It is possible Svalbard could become such an international entrepreneurship hub. Cheap flights between Longyearbyen and Oslo allow easy access to the EU market and there’s a transatlantic non-stop flight from Oslo to Oakland providing cheap access to Silicon Valley.

Another possibility for the growth of Svalbard might be as a refugee settlement.

I deeply believe every person has the right to abode anywhere in the world as a human right, natural and inherent. Saying the person has the right to live only within border of his or her country is saying Vatican citizens can only live within 0.44 square kilometers while Russian citizens are entitled to 17.1 million square kilometers.

Because the every sovereign country has the right to approve admission of aliens on stringent criteria, all world citizens are effectively disenfranchised of the right of expatriation. Particularly if the person is a citizen of a developing country. According to Gallup, 700 million people, or 16 percent of the world’s adult population, wants to emigrate to a foreign country permanently.

Granted, this might not initially be welcomed by the community or Norwegian government. Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, the owner of Orascom, for example, suggested buying an island in Greece or Italy to settle 200,000 refugees, but negotiations haven’t succeed so far. In particular, immigration legislation in Greece or Italy is a barrier to accepting refugees without approval of the government.

Countries tend to be more prosperous the further they are to the north. Nearly all wealthy countries are above 30 degrees latitude north. This line is known as Brandt line, proposed by Willy Brandt, to depict the North-South divide.

Thanks to my seven-week stay in Silicon Valley, I became acquainted with some prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and am hoping to attract their interest and support for my new proposal.

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The 217-square-kilometer Austre Adventfjord land tract near Longyearbyen has been on the market since 2014. Photo courtesy of Wikicommons.

I’m now wondering whether the Bergen family that owns Austre Adventfjord is willing to sell the 217-square-kilometer Austre Adventfjord private land tract for such purposes. As one of only two private properties in Svalbard, there might be fewer roadblocks for new ventures than government-owned land.

Difficult issues would still remain. Housing refugees in Svalbard has been suggested by both Norway’s Green Party (sincerely) and Progress Party (perhaps not so much, given its anti-immigration stance), but the idea is considered impractical by many living here – including Mouawia Lababidi, a Syrian who’s been a Longyearbyen resident since 2010. The harsh climate – along with limited housing, medical facilities and work opportunities – are among the reasons refugees would more ideally find safe haven on the mainland.

But the number of asylum seekers this year has dropped to an all-time low due to increasingly harsh policies regarding refugees. The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration stated in January it expected 60,000 asylum seekers in 2016, but to date only about 9,000 have filed an application and 3,693 have received asylum.

The Green Party, in its advocacy, admits there are numerous practical and infrastructure questions to be resolved if Svalbard is to house refugees, but reception facilities would be both a better and more responsible investment in providing local jobs than the funds being spent to “pause” coal mining and pursue other questionable prospects.

I deeply believe a settlement in the Arctic or Antarctica is much more feasible and practical than a settlement on the moon or Mars. Also, a settlement in Arctic could become a model seasteading, an underwater city, or a settlement on the moon or Mars. I dream of developing Svalbard with its open borders as an epicenter of cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism that will lead to the “World Schengen Agreement” or at least World (International) Freedom of Movement, and EUnization of the United Nations in terms of peace, mobility, democracy, prosperity and human rights.

I’m now meeting with entrepreneurs in Svalbard and honestly haven’t figured out too much yet, since there’s a need to adjust to the time zone and climate. Hopefully I can figure more out soon as I meet more people. If you have thoughts, contact me at jiwoonhwang@ gmail.com or www.facebook.com/jiwoonhwang.

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