Airbnb’s program to help refugees from Ukraine could use a solution
AMSTERDAM – In February, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, a the meme went viral on facebook: “I just booked an AirBnB in Kyiv for 1 week, just as a way to put some money in the hands of Kyiv residents. It’s really cheap and can make a little difference right now. The phenomenon, known as “phantom reservationshas become a simple, personalized and popular method of providing resources and showing solidarity with the civilian population of Ukraine, while helping Airbnb hosts in Kyiv who were hosting internally displaced people, or IDPs, fleeing invasion further east.
This type of grassroots effort has become not only common but prevalent in the humanitarian response to the war in Ukraine, even if it is not necessarily a good way to bring money to refugees. Airbnb has garnered positive press through this effort, however, which has helped to highlight his own separate effort to support refugees, now splashed across its homepage. This program targets refugees rather than hosts, but it does not allow customers to support individual families in a local way like the phantom reservations movement. Rather, it is managed by third-party non-governmental organizations that have established special relationships with Airbnb to act in specific contexts.
This program before the Russian invasion and works on the initiative of hosts rather than refugees or clients. It involves matching hosts wishing to host a refugee with refugees linked to a few specific NGOs or the International Organization for Migration. Airbnb pays for some rooms itself and waives fees for others. The NGOs then match the refugees with the hosts who have themselves registered to be part of the programme. There are benefits to this more bureaucratic model: Airbnb improves host safety by allowing NGO intermediaries to screen refugee guests and check them against various watchlists, including for terrorism and travel sanctions. But while this verification helps hosts, too little attention seems to be given by NGOs to ensure that accommodation meets the needs of refugees.
Returning from Poland, I passed through Amsterdam to see a pregnant mother whom I had driven from the Ukrainian border to Warsaw and who had traveled to the Netherlands by train. She had registered with the Red Cross, which placed her in a houseboat in Amsterdam for free. But, she texted me, the ship didn’t have a working kitchen, “not even a tea kettle, and it’s getting very expensive to pay for all the restaurant meals.” My first instinct was to find him an Airbnb with a kitchen myself and pay for it with a GoFundMe account I had created for refugee aid. But since Airbnb’s program works through hosts, it was impossible for me as a guest to figure out which listings were part of the refugee assistance program in order to find a better match. And if I booked an unaffiliated listing directly, I would not be able to access or even claim the discount offered for the refugee program.
By organizing things this way, Airbnb has created a public relations problem, as guests find there is no discount if they book refugee rooms themselves, and refugees are left in a bureaucratic vacuum when they cannot figure out which organizations in the city where they happen to be part of the program. But it also misses an opportunity to be part of a larger, broader effort to host refugees, where its potential to connect refugees with hosts through Airbnb’s third-party customers could fill an important need at the global level. local.
To better understand this need, consider that the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees moving west through Europe right now will not come into contact with the major NGOs that Airbnb uses as intermediaries, and have not necessarily need free long-term housing. Instead, thousands of refugees are currently crammed into railway stations in Warsaw, Krakow, Berlin and other places, needing only a night or two of rest before continuing their journey. Meanwhile, the vast majority of foreign bystanders to this crisis, while unable to uproot themselves and fly away to volunteer at the Ukrainian border as I and countless others have done, are nonetheless eager to do something as simple and personal as offering to pay for a night or two of accommodation for a refugee family.
The “phantom booking” model and Airbnb’s business model for helping Ukrainian refugees represent two ends of a continuum. What is missing is a technological solution to bridge the gap.
But Airbnb’s refugee model and overall app structure don’t make it easy for them to fit in, even if guests are willing to pay the full costs of a booking. Instead, it waters down the very kind of grassroots organization that is currently driving the relief effort for Ukrainian refugees, but faces structural barriers to scalability and effective coordination. The phantom booking model and the Airbnb business model represent two ends of a continuum. What’s missing in Airbnb’s current formula is a technological solution to bridge the gap.
While still in Poland last week, I spoke with Monika, a Polish citizen who shows up every night after work at local train stations to befriend refugee families, one by one . She described to me the weariness she sees: mothers coming off evening trains exhausted and traumatized, piled up on the concrete floor with their children, suitcases and shopping bags stuffed with stuff, waiting for the next train. Her work is both psychosocial and needs-based: she aims to make families feel safe and welcome, and to treat them with dignity.
Monika has a list of families who will give these refugees a bed for the night, but she told me: “Sometimes they are afraid to go to someone’s house. There are too many stories of traffickers. Sometimes the husbands they text with tell them to stay at the station, not to go with strangers. Moreover, says Monika, there are always more refugee families in need than there are beds. We talked about Airbnb’s program providing long-term housing for some families, but she said, “What I need is just one night here, one night there, anytime.”
Listening to him, I saw in the sharing economy a logical solution to his problem. Few individual donors could afford long-term Airbnb stays for families, but many in the ghost-booking demographic would happily pay a night here, a night there, as Monika said, to book a room in minutes online, faster than NGOs can process applications. And my experience tells me the hosts would be happy to oblige. During a trip to Poland, I had to change my route several times to meet refueling requests. Each time I did, I asked the Airbnb host I was originally staying with if I could instead offer my room to a refugee family I had met along the way. In each case, they accepted. This kind of effort has not only placed people in homes. It has also created personal networks of goodwill between refugees, hosts and members of the Airbnb community, allowing even those who cannot travel a mechanism to provide another valuable resource to victims of war: their social connections. interpersonal, unmediated by professional bureaucracies.
Sitting in a coffeeshop in Warsaw last week with Monika, her husband Eric and two Portuguese volunteers fresh off the plane, we sketched out a way to expand housing for refugees in the Warsaw area by linking Monika to a directory Airbnb customers willing to book rooms for individual families based on need. The two Portuguese volunteers offered to drive refugees for a week and recommend other friends to take their place when they had to leave. At the same time, in the United States, two of my Twitter contacts were building a spreadsheet on Google Drive, collecting the names and email addresses of Airbnb guests willing to pay for rooms. By connecting refugees, greeters, volunteer drivers, customers, and Airbnb hosts, we imagined we could quickly build a system that could be sustained and replicated, even after I left.
However, when we tested this system, we ran into the kind of logistical problems endemic to grassroots humanitarian work. I was Monika’s first point of contact, since I had taken care of the room booking, but my phone had internet connection issues for part of the evening. When I was able to get back to her and confirm a room, the Airbnb app made it very difficult to share on-the-fly instructions with drivers and pass them on to families. I also couldn’t easily add guests to the booking without all their contact details, which was sometimes difficult to get refugees due to language barriers. Not that the hosts demanded it – they were happy to welcome refugees. But they too found it difficult to communicate directly with the refugees and the drivers because the application required them to go through me. The system had the potential to work, as all parties were ready, but the structure of the application created obstacles.
We had two families in rooms that night. It meant the world to them. Later, over a beer, Joao, one of the Portuguese volunteers, described the look on the faces of tired Ukrainian children when they saw they had a safe and clean place to spend the night after a traumatic and arduous journey: “You could see that they realized they still had value,” he told me. But it had been a difficult undertaking, and to be reliable and scalable, this system needed to be faster, easier, more crowd-based, and less prone to bottlenecks and weak links.
And it represents an example of a bigger problem plaguing grassroots humanitarian efforts: the shortcomings of organized volunteerism. In a way, by choosing to work only with professional NGOs, Airbnb circumvents this problem. But simple architectural changes to its application could simultaneously allow individuals at the local level to coordinate more effectively to support specific families, thus striking a happy medium between centralization and chaos. This would potentially support the benefits of grassroots flexibility described by anthropologist Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, while guarding against the chaos of decentralized volunteerism that I documented in a previous column. In other words, Airbnb app developers have an untapped opportunity to help organize grassroots efforts, without directing them to icy bureaucratization. They should take it.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets at @charlicarpenter. His weekly WPR column appears every other Friday.