According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an unparalleled 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
On 9 September 2015, the Australian Government announced it will only make an extra 12 thousand humanitarian places available in response to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Papua New Guinea and the small Pacific island nation of Nauru remain holding around 2200 asylum seekers and refugees, under Australia’s offshore detention, processing and settlement arrangements. These are now being criticised on a global scale.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture found that Australia has violated the rights of asylum seekers, including children, to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment— findings that were publicly dismissed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Distressing footage from Syria, refugee camps and detention centres on Nauru have sparked a new-found interest from the Australian public which is often followed by a desire to support refugees and asylum seekers. Many however, do not know where to start.
Graduate student Amr Arafa has discovered that housing refugees could be as easy as simply tweaking Airbnb.
The student moved to America in 2005 from Egypt with nothing but $1,000 cash in his pocket. With nowhere to stay, a University professor hosted him until he managed to find a place in this new country on his own.
Now a management consultant in Washington, Arafa has never forgotten what it felt like in those first few weeks to have a safe place to stay “offered by a stranger who cares”.
When he finally became stable in America and found his own place to live, Arafa begun to list his apartment in Washington D.C. onto Airbnb.
The description on his listing makes it clear that the space is only available for refugees and domestic violence survivors. He charges $10 per night, the minimum rate Airbnb allows, and then reimburses the guests for what they pay.
Commercial user of Airbnb, Lauren Moore, praises the site for its simplicity and ease.
“We decided to list privately owned apartments and houses on this platform a few years ago because it’s so simple: very hard to get a double booking, and we can view guest profiles before they arrive,” Moore said.
“You get the opportunity to accept or decline a booking because you can read reviews on guests before making the selection.”
Arafa found similar ease with accepting and declining bookings, however this became the downfall of this Airbnb endeavour.
After seeing the cheap listing, travellers would frequently message him wanting a free place to stay, then Airbnb would take down his posting for rejecting too many people. He quickly realised that Airbnb was not an effective platform for his mission.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” – Warsan Shire
So he took the next step and used his computer science background to create a website through which domestic violence victims and refugees could connect with people willing to share their homes.
Thirteen years after moving across the world and he has taken his experience and turned it into EmergencyBnB, a platform that connects refugees and victims of domestic violence, to an entirely free temporary shelter. A self-funded test version of the EmergencyBnB website was launched in March, where Arafa announced it to small groups of friends on Facebook.
Despite his disbelief, the post was widely shared. While EmergencyBnb is still in its early stages, many believe that tweaking Airbnb could provide a great outcome for the company.
“Airbnb would be a good platform to start something like this. Anyone who has a spare bed or room can easily list their apartment and as the property owner you know you can control who stays and who you decline,” Ms Moore explains.
“Airbnb is super simple and anyone could list a room on there if they could help. It would be so effective in Australia, especially at the moment. We live in such a great country and so many Australians are always willing to help, they just don’t know how to. This could make the process much easier.”
Multicultural Mental Health & Wellbeing Service Manager, Teneille Arundale, from Harmony Place works with struggling refugees every day and is excited that the community are starting to stand up for these changes.
“Common struggles that are prominent affecting refugees are navigating the mental health systems in Australia, language barriers, service accessibility, and not seeking appropriate mental health support assistance due to cultural stigma,” Teneille said.
“[They] may have experienced or are experiencing a wide range of mental health concerns; including but not limited to a history of torture, trauma, anxiety, and stress.”
While the struggles that refugees face while relocating are not limited to finding a place to stay, but Teneille thinks that EmergencyBnB or an adjustment to Airbnb would make a massive change.
“Refugee support services can make a prominent, positive difference for those who come to Australia as refugees. These organisations provide an extremely valuable service to the newly arrived individuals and families by supporting them in their re-settlement process.”
Ms Arundale believes that it goes further than just accommodation services.
“Participation by the community to positively assist refugees in their settlement journey can occur in a number of ways including; participating in community events which are inclusive of persons of all cultures, participating in a cultural event that differs from the individuals, and meeting members of the community from diverse cultural backgrounds,” Teneille said.
“In this way the community as a whole can benefit by increasing one’s understanding and education of community members that differ culturally or religiously to themselves which will create a cohesive and inclusive environment for all.”
Airbnb are currently working with UNHCR and other organisations to assist with funding for the current global refugee crisis, however no changes to implement free temporary hosting have been put in place.