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Citizens reach out through 'Airbnb for refugees'

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Refugees Welcome's Web site explains how it matches people or groups with spare accommodation with refugees seeking a place to stay.
Refugees Welcome's Web site explains how it matches people or groups with spare accommodation with refugees seeking a place to stay.

Amid ongoing political turmoil among EU member states in the wake of the EU refugee crisis, EU citizens are harnessing tech to step up to the challenge of personally accommodating and aiding refugees.

In what is rapidly becoming known as the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa are desperately seeking safety in Europe, many fleeing from war-torn or poverty-stricken regions.

'Airbnb for refugees'

Refugees Welcome, a kind of "Airbnb for refugees", seeks to unite EU residents with spare accommodation with refugees seeking a place to stay, and has been "overwhelmed" with offers of support.

The Web-based service, currently operating in Germany and Austria, has seen nearly 800 signups from Germans offering space in their homes, and placed 26 people in accommodation to date. Thus far, the service has helped people from Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria.

To participate in Refugees Welcome, German or Austrian residents sign up and provide details about their accommodation via the Web site. Refugees Welcome then puts the host in touch with an external refugee organisation close to them, who will match them to a suitable refugee and facilitate an introduction between the two people or groups.

If the host person or group needs to pay rent for their new housemate, Refugees Welcome offers to help finance this, through micro-donations, crowd-funding or through the state. Once the refugee has moved into their new accommodation, local refugee organisations can provide support such as language courses or help finding employment, Refugees Welcome advises.

Refugees Welcome is looking to extend its operation to other EU countries, including the UK, Greece and Portugal, and has also received inquiries from outside the EU, namely Australia and the USA.

The power of tech

"It's a brilliant initiative," says Roshan Dadoo, director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, of EU residents' efforts to help refugees and migrants.

While SA is not notably affected by the EU refugee crisis, there are similarities between initiatives like Refugees Welcome and the ways South Africans used tech to mobilise aid during the xenophobic attacks earlier this year, Dadoo notes.

Social networks such as Facebook helped to widely and easily spread calls for help and information about collection drives at short notice, she says.

Tech can help citizens to mobilise humanitarian aid in the face of government inaction, and be very effective in gathering dissent of this inaction, she notes, mentioning a recent Change.org petition urging David Cameron to ensure Britain accepts "its fair share" of refugees, which has attracted over 250 000 signatures at the time of writing.

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