The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Earthquake? Silicon Valley will help. Refugee crisis? Not so much.

The Post's Caitlin Dewey explains what Airbnb isn't doing about the European migrant crisis. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

If you’re a resident of Berlin or Frankfurt or Munich with a spare room or an extra rental property, it takes only a matter of minutes to find paying renters on the home-share site Airbnb.

But if you’d like to use your guest room for a more altruistic purpose — say, housing one of the country’s 200,000 incoming refugees — your best bet is a German nonprofit group so small that it’s running off Google Docs and piecemeal donations from online crowdfunding.

German media have branded the project “Airbnb for Refugees,” apparently forgetting one little fact: Airbnb itself runs a program to help and house the victims of disasters. In a pattern that’s playing out across Silicon Valley, however, the company has chosen not to deploy that program for Europe’s refugees.

The same companies that trumpeted their support for victims of the Nepal earthquakes just five months ago have fallen strangely silent in the midst of this messier, more political tragedy.

“There is so much that technology companies can and should be doing,” said Kate Coyer, director of the Civil Society and Technology Project at Budapest’s Central European University. “That said, often it’s the grass-roots, spontaneous civic initiatives that are the first to develop apps and get the tools and technologies into the hands of those who need it.”

Enter Flüchtlinge Willkommen, the so-called Airbnb for Refugees. Started late last year by a couple of concerned 20-somethings who wanted to rent out their own spare room, the program essentially pairs volunteers with local refugee organizations, then — once their new roommate has moved in — helps them pay rent and negotiate any cultural or linguistic issues.

To date, Flüchtlinge Willkommen (literally “Refugees Welcome”) has placed 176 refugees in local homes. But that pales in comparison with the number of spare rooms available on the $25 billion behemoth Airbnb: more than 13,000 in Berlin alone. Through the company’s three-year-old Disaster Response program, which lets interested hosts open their homes for free to people in need, it could theoretically put up hundreds of in-transit refugees.

That hasn’t escaped the notice of aid workers, such as the United Nations’s Brendan McDonald, who have been tweeting at the company asking whether it will activate the program in Europe.

“We have deployed it a number of times,” Airbnb replied in a statement, “primarily in cases … where people were temporarily displaced within a region and their neighbors from our community were available to lend a helping hand for a few days until they could get back into their homes or find longer term housing solutions.”

They point out that a refugee crisis is fundamentally different: It’s drawn-out, divisive, indeterminable. The needs of the people flooding into Italy and Greece are nothing like the needs of people whose basements flooded during a hurricane.

Plus, war is bad for business: A refugee crisis doesn’t pack the same PR punch.

“It’s easier for the private sector to get involved after a natural disaster,” said Sebastien Chessex, who coordinates private partnerships for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “There’s not as much of a political dimension.”

To date, Chessex said, no private firms have partnered with ICRC to develop tools or technologies to help European refugees, and no one seems interested in doing much more than flinging money at charity. Neither Facebook nor Google has launched their safety check-up features in Europe, for instance, though both did after Nepal’s earthquake earlier this year. The GSMA, a major telecom industry group, signed a “humanitarian charter” in March but hasn’t acted to make international calls in Europe any easier.

Meanwhile, Airbnb says it’s talking to aid groups about putting up their workers, but hasn’t announced anything yet. And Microsoft — which built critical software for the United Nations after the Kosovo refugee crisis in the late ’90s — declined to comment on its plans, if there are any. Microsoft-owned Skype, which has periodically made calls free after major storms and other natural disasters, hasn’t extended the same courtesy to the hundreds of thousands of people now stranded in such places as Hungary and Croatia.

“The private sector is allergic to conflict,” scoffed a senior official at one international aid group, who was not authorized to speak on the record. “They’re happy to help after a natural disaster, because they know things will improve. But in a conflict emergency, we don’t know what will happen, and they don’t want to be held responsible.”

In their absence, more work has fallen to overtaxed volunteers on the ground: organizations like Flüchtlinge Willkommen, which is so besieged by demand that it no longer answers e-mails. The organization has gotten inquiries from interested hosts as far away as New Zealand and the Philippines; a sister group has sprung up in Austria; and groups in Iceland and Britain have attempted to set up their own localized “refugee Airbnbs.”

As of this writing, Flüchtlinge Willkommen is trying to crowdfund money for basic office supplies, such as a printer, and the funds to pay their lease. The group says it needs to hire three more people to expand the program into other European countries. Now there are only six full-time staffers and a few dozen ad hoc volunteers.

Of the roughly $60,000 they’ve asked for, they have raised just over $30,000. If only there were a company with the funding and the expertise to help them.

Liked that? Try these!