Among the most vocal opponents of President Trump’s widely lambasted ban on refugees entering the US earlier this year was Airbnb. Companies virtually queued up to slam the executive order but while some focussed primarily on the effect it could have on business and their own employees, the home-sharing startup’s response was pragmatic and – we hate the word, but – authentic. It would have a tangible impact on the lives of thousands of displaced people, to whom other companies appeared to be merely paying lip service.
"Closing doors further divides US. Let's all find ways to connect people, not separate them," tweeted CEO Brian Chesky, announcing that Airbnb was offering free accommodation to anyone left stranded by the ban. "Not allowing countries or refugees into America is not right, and we must stand with those who are affected." Just a few days later, the company took its commitment one step further, vowing to provide short-term housing for 100,000 refugees and other displaced people over the next five years, and pledging to donate $4 million over four years to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the global non-profit that helps those affected by humanitarian crises.
“To help people around the world facing displacement, we'll work with our community of hosts to find not just a place to stay, but also a place to feel connected, respected, and a part of a community again,” its founders said in a statement.
By virtue of being a home-sharing giant, Airbnb is uniquely well positioned to help refugees. With a gargantuan network of properties and potential hosts around the world – more than 3 million properties listed in over 191 countries – there are myriad opportunities for refugees to be welcomed into new homes and communities. Earlier this month, the company revealed exactly how it's going to fulfil its commitment to them.
Open Homes is Airbnb’s ambitious new platform which aims to make it easy for normal people to host refugees in the same way they would paying guests. To become a host, all you need is a property to let or a spare room, and a willingness to house someone or a family for free. Hosts can choose between housing refugees or evacuees, the number of people they host and how long the home is available. The host is then matched with a trusted organisation that specialises in the right kind of need and it’s their responsibility to vet the refugee(s) and make the bookings. Less than a month since Open Homes was unveiled, more than 6,000 people have already signed up to be hosts – half of whom are completely new to the site, suggesting there is huge potential to seize the generosity of people who may not otherwise have known how to help refugees.
For years, Airbnb has quietly given hosts the opportunity to offer short-term salvation to people forced out of their homes by emergencies, natural disasters and the refugee crisis but, captivated by the escalating refugee crisis in late 2015, it was inspired to create a new programme to unite these efforts under one umbrella. It’s not the first initiative like this to exist – UK-based charity Refugees at Home and SINGA in France, for example, do something similar – but it’s a new step for the homestay network and, considering its worldwide reach, could prove to be the quickest and most efficient way to house those in need. Open Homes helpfully addresses the difficulties they can encounter when sorting accommodation for their temporary “soft landing” in a new country, before they’ve sorted permanent housing.
Currently, in the UK, the situation facing asylum seekers (those who haven't yet been granted refugee status) is “pretty grim”, says Rachel Mantell from Refugees at Home, which connects hosts with asylum seekers and refugees in a similar way to Open Homes. Most asylum seekers are entitled to accommodation provided by the National Asylum Support Service (NASS), which is dispersed around the country on a ‘no choice’ basis, and provided by third-party suppliers such as Serco. "It is often not great quality – dirty, crowded, far from support services, such as English lessons, in the cheapest and therefore most deprived parts of the country, and asylum seekers can be and are moved at short notice," Mantell told Refinery29. Personal preference, including proximity to friends and community, isn't taken into account except in very exceptional cases.
Strangely enough, Open Homes could prove to be even more crucial for those who have recently been granted refugee status, than for asylum seekers. In the UK, this is when people are most likely to become homeless, says Judith Dennis, policy manager at the Refugee Council. “Ironically, the worst problems occur just at the point when people are granted protection as a refugee. While people are going through the process of seeking asylum, they are given secure, albeit variable housing, but this support stops just 28 days after asylum has been granted." What should be a time for rejoicing is therefore often the start of a new misery.
During these 28 days, refugees must find a job, get a national insurance number, register for any benefits they’re entitled to, and move out and find a new home – somewhere that will take housing benefit and is refugee-friendly. This can be difficult because of new regulations designed to create a hostile environment for those here illegally, which mean many landlords simply won’t rent to refugees for fear of falling foul of them. Often, language barriers and the sheer amount of paperwork required to secure a job and rental property can mean time gets the better of them and they end up homeless and destitute, Dennis says.
Open Homes could therefore be revolutionary for both refugees and asylum seekers coming to the UK, and plans are underway for its launch very soon. Joe Gebbia, one of Airbnb's cofounders, told Refinery29 they "are currently working with local partners in the UK and hope to launch the programme there this summer". Britain received over 38,500 asylum claims in 2016, the sixth highest number of applications in the EU, according to EU statistics office Eurostat, so there is potential for Open Homes to make a lot of difference.
Refugees already in the UK have welcomed the platform's launch and believe it would be helpful for others forced to make the perilous journey here. Ammar Raad, 29, is a Syrian refugee who fled the country for his safety in August 2015. He spent 10 months in the Calais 'Jungle' before making the difficult journey across the channel to the UK to join his twin brother last July. When he arrived, he was detained for two weeks before being sent to a hostel in Cardiff, where he stayed for three months in "bad" conditions. When his asylum claim was granted in January 2017, he left Wales for London to study.
In London, Raad was put in touch with Refugees at Home, who, in a similar way to Open Homes, found him somewhere to stay. "A family hosted me and it has been the most amazing help, so I think it is wonderful that Airbnb are doing the same," he says. "It is so much nicer than staying in temporary housing which the authorities give. I feel like I have a home, and it has made me feel so welcome here in the UK. I will forever be grateful to the family for giving me a place in their home. It took so much anxiety and worry away. And it was nice to be treated as a human, and not just a refugee." That the prospect of staying in someone else’s comfy, well-furnished home is more appealing to many refugees, many of whom will crave sanctuary after a life-threatening journey overseas, than the substandard and often "disgraceful” housing they could be allocated, is unsurprising.
Open Homes could help to foster cross-cultural understanding, too. “Since founding Airbnb, we have seen that hosting can break down cultural barriers and make people feel more connected to the world around them," says Gebbia. "We hope to see that hosting a refugee creates greater understanding in their new communities at large, as the hosts ease the refugee’s transition into their new hometown.”
I will forever be grateful to the family for giving me a place in their home. It took so much worry away. And it was nice to be treated as a human, not just a refugee.
Refugees at Home and the Refugee Council both welcome the new platform. "We welcome anything that helps refugees and asylum seekers avoid homelessness and destitution, and are excited to see such a global company accepting there is an issue and trying to address it," says Mantell, adding that the charity is "hoping to talk to them about it soon". Dennis says it's a very promising initiative that could have a real impact on refugees' lives. "The kindness of strangers in opening their homes to refugees cannot be underestimated. Without them we would see many more people on the streets, with literally no place to call home.”
When Open Homes launches in the UK, it won't necessarily be plain sailing, however. Some have pointed out that because many refugees want to be in large cities, like London, so as to have more chance of getting a job, the pool of potential host volunteers will be reduced. Living in an expensive world city means many Londoners already have to make sacrifices to get by and don't own their own homes to begin with, so even if we want to, many of us simply won't be able to help.
People may also have understandable reservations about letting strangers, with whom they may not even share a language, into their homes and households. But Gebbia is adamant there is nothing to worry about, as the refugee guests will have been vetted by "an experienced third party who will book people on [the] platform", so there is minimal risk of letting dangerous people into your home. "We’ve partnered with the IRC for years, and these organisations have the best tools and are the most experienced people in the world at validating the status of these refugees."
“It’s also important to keep in mind that we’re not talking about dangerous people, we’re talking about families in crisis," Gebbia adds. "We’ve all seen the pictures, these heartbreaking images of families torn by civil war, with nowhere to go, when all they need is the security of a home.”
Going forward, Airbnb hopes to expand the platform to serve more evacuees and other displaced people. The company also wants to continue "breaking down barriers and building trust between people across cultures," Gebbia says. While it’s easy to feel powerless when you think about massive global challenges like the refugee crisis, there are things everyone can do that make a big difference. "The simple act of opening your home for a few nights can be life-changing for people who’ve had to leave everything behind.”