Activists welcome Airbnb’s commitment to house 100,000 refugees, but they say finding the right hosts will take more than an algorithm

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Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

After President Donald Trump halted the flow of refugees coming into the US through an executive order last month, Airbnb came out with a strong response: the home-sharing startup committed to providing free short-term housing for 100,000 refugees and other displaced people over the next five years. Airbnb has begun asking volunteers to open their homes to refugees in need, and it says it will subsidize costs in cases where no hosts offer their properties for free.

The program has drawn praise from refugee advocates, and it generated plenty of positive publicity for Airbnb. The company branded its campaign under the #WeAccept hashtag, and it put together a Super Bowl commercial that promoted diversity and acceptance. It seems to have had an early impact, as well; an Airbnb spokesman tells The Verge that 5,019 hosts have offered their homes for free since Trump announced the executive order, and that 176 people have been housed so far.

But Airbnb’s approach is far from unique. Amid growing hostility toward refugees across Europe and the US, activists have launched similar online initiatives that aim to match refugees with willing hosts, as part of broader efforts to help them integrate in new societies. Such organizations operate at a far smaller scale than Airbnb — which has 3 million property listings in 191 countries — and they have welcomed the startup’s involvement; some say they’ve already been in touch with Airbnb about potential collaborations. But they also caution that finding suitable homes for refugees involves more complexity and nuance than merely matching supply with demand.

“It’s a bit of a mix between Facebook, Airbnb, and Tinder,” says Alice Barbe, director of SINGA France, a Paris-based association that works to house refugees and help them integrate in French society. “You have to find people who actually get along together.”

In June 2015, SINGA launched an Airbnb-like website called CALM, which connects refugees with volunteer hosts in Paris and three other French cities. To date, the organization has found short-term housing (from 3 to 12 months) for more than 400 refugees in France, Barbe says, and more than 10,000 people have volunteered to share their homes. About half of the refugees housed through CALM have gone on to find a job, and 60 percent have found permanent housing, she adds.

CALM collects basic information from those who volunteer their homes, including their location and the number of people they could accommodate, as well as more personal details such as their areas of interest and field of work. The goal, Barbe says, is to not only provide refugees with basic shelter, but to foster dialogue and build relationships with their hosts, as well.

“That’s really the idea — that thanks to cohabitation, people are going to be able to create a cultural, human enrichment between them,” Barbe says, adding: “We don’t build things for refugees, we build things with refugees and for society. Because in France, when one talks of refugees, many people immediately have these fantasies, these clichés about these people.”

Combatting stereotypes is a common concern for aid groups in Europe, where far-right movements have gained political momentum in recent years. Parties such as the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany have promoted anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies, and they have frequently been accused of fomenting racism and Islamophobia. Others have criticized leaders in Europe and the US for not doing enough to accommodate refugees, even as conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan show no sign of letting up.

“The current climate is such that the political will to really, in a meaningful way, tackle the refugee crisis is next to none,” says Charlotte Phillips, advisor on refugee and migrants’ rights at Amnesty International. “And we’re not just talking about the US — it has been bad for a really, really long time. In Europe, it’s terrible.”

Philips says such political inaction has placed an even greater burden on SINGA and similar organizations like the UK-based Refugees at Home and the Berlin-based Refugees Welcome. Widely described as an “Airbnb for Refugees,” Refugees Welcome saw a surge of volunteers in 2015, after a photo of a drowned Syrian boy drew media attention to the migrant crisis. The home-sharing site has since expanded to Canada, Australia, and other European countries, though it has had to contend with growing anti-refugee sentiment. According to The Huffington Post, the site’s founders received death threats in 2016 as anti-immigration movements gained momentum in Germany.

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Activists have had to contend with growing anti-immigrant movements across Europe. | Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Timothy Nathan, a co-founder of Refugees at Home, says his charity has received hateful messages on social media, which he attributes, in part, to a surge in xenophobia after last year’s Brexit vote. Like SINGA, Refugees at Home’s solicits volunteer hosts online and matches them with refugees, based on the location of their home and other personal preferences. Since launching in October 2015, the site has made 350 placements, totaling some 14,500 hosted nights, and Nathan says that even post-Brexit, the organization continues to see a steady stream of volunteers. Many are what he describes as “middle class, empty-nesters with an empty room,” though he says that students and senior citizens have signed up to the site, as well.

Nathan says that his home-sharing program has helped build stronger understanding between Brits and refugees, and he believes it can help dispel sensationalist stereotypes about Muslim refugees. One challenge, he notes, is that many refugees need to be in London or other large cities where they have a better chance of landing a job, which limits the pool of potential volunteers.

Most volunteers also prefer to host women rather than single men, Nathan says, even though most refugees coming into Europe are men. He believes part of that is due to exaggerated tabloid headlines that link refugees to violent crimes, creating what he describes as “an atmosphere of fear and distrust, which is almost entirely unwarranted.” (SINGA, notably, has not seen such a gender divide; the organization says that single men comprise about 90 percent of the refugees it has placed.)

European home-sharing organizations say they’re encouraged to see Airbnb turn its attention to refugees, and they are eager to participate; SINGA and Takecarebnb, a similar initiative based in Amsterdam, say they’ve been in touch with Airbnb about potential collaborations. The activists believe that Airbnb’s technology and financial resources could help small organizations reach a wider audience, while relieving some of the burden that their organizations are currently under.

Jonna Klijnsma, operational director at Takecarebnb, believes Airbnb could have a “huge impact” on the landscape, though she stresses the importance of taking a “personal approach” to matchmaking. Since launching in December 2015, her organization has found housing for about 70 refugees, and around 250 people have volunteered their homes. As with other organizations, Takecarebnb matches people based on geography and personal characteristics, including a host’s lifestyle and area of work. The nonprofit then arranges a preliminary meeting between refugees and their hosts, and if that goes well, they spend a “test weekend” together before committing to a three-month stay.

“That might be a little bit different from the normal work [Airbnb is] doing in connecting people digitally,” Klijnsma says, “but we think that the combined forces of digital and personal are really the answer to a very successful approach.”

An Airbnb spokesman did not provide details on the criteria the site considers when matching refugees to hosts. In an email, the spokesman said that Airbnb works with “a range of organizations who help identify people in need” before connecting them with hosts, adding that some have been housed in the US and Turkey. (He did not provide a broader geographic breakdown.) The company’s site collects only basic information from those who volunteer their homes, including their addresses and the number of spare beds and rooms they have.

Some of those who have been housed are sharing homes with their hosts, the spokesman said, while others have been put in properties that were not occupied. “It depends on the individual’s needs — some folks need a place to themselves, others are better served by a situation where the host is present,” he said. “We work to find the right situation for the person in need.”

Prioritizing refugees’ needs will be key to Airbnb’s scheme going forward, says Phillips of Amnesty International, particularly because many continue to suffer from trauma after fleeing their war-torn homes. She says Airbnb and other home-sharing schemes should also have safeguards in place to make sure that refugees won’t be on the street in case their living arrangements don’t work out.

“The housing part is really important, but in a way it’s so much more than that,” Phillips says. “Because you’re providing a family, or a community, or a very significant support base. So the room in someone’s flat is only the beginning of that, really.”