September 27, 2015 / 10:00 AM / in 2 years

While EU governments demur, refugees find a welcome on the Web

Migrants walk to the Austrian border in Nickelsdorf from Hegyeshalom, Hungary, in this September 26, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/Files

PARIS/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - With one million people expected to seek asylum in Europe this year and governments arguing over how to cope, thousands of volunteers are taking to the Internet to offer refugees shelter free of charge.

In France, the Netherlands and other European countries, private individuals are proposing free lodging via Web-based platforms inspired by Airbnb, the home rental venture that has flourished with the rise of smartphones.

Some fear private endeavors may complicate government efforts to direct the refugee flow, or simply prove too short-lived as the strains of sharing a home take their toll.

“It’s laudable symbolically but it’s not the model favored by the state,” said an official at the interior ministry of France, where arrivals are despatched to accommodation centers or state-paid hotel rooms.

But refugees, many of whom relied heavily on mobile phone maps and communications during their journey to Europe from Syria, Iraq or Africa, will find plenty of offers online.

On one Irish website, more than 1,000 people “pledged a bed” for refugees within three hours. In Germany, “Refugees Welcome” offers a matching service to put people with lodgings in touch with refugees.

One French venture, Singa, has registered 10,000 offers of free lodgings since it started up in June and now has 10 volunteers working full time to match refugees with hosts.

“We’re overwhelmed. We had no idea there would be such an enthusiastic response,” said founder Nathanael Molle. So far, Singa has put 47 refugees in homes around Paris.

Civil servant Clara de Bort, 40, used to rent a spare room to paying tourists. Now she shares her home for free with Aicha, a woman who fled ethnic conflict and forced marriage in Chad and who has been through 14 different state-funded accommodation centers and hotels since she arrived two years ago.

Aicha, 25, recently equipped with a book to help her learn French, hopes for a convivial living arrangement and eventual stability. “What I need now is to speak French properly, get a job and find a HLM (long-term social housing),” said the Arabic-speaker. She asked not to have her family name published.

Dutch-based Refugee Hero, whose founders describe it as a “mobile-friendly website with similar functionality to Airbnb”, says 50 refugees have made contact since it started a few days ago.

It has yet to conclude a placement but already “we’ve got over a hundred listings from all over the world, from Portugal to Brazil, to Austria and the Netherlands,” Ayoub Aouragh, one of three young co-founders, told Reuters.

Jurrien ten Brinke in the Dutch city of Apeldoorn aims to fill gaps in public housing and is linking up with non-governmental organizations to train volunteers to help refugees.

More than 24,000 people have signed up to help and 6,000 of them are offering to house refugees if and when the authorities acknowledge they are stretched.

Peter van der Weerd, an Apeldoorn volunteer, regularly hosts refugees for dinner at his home. “It’s my duty to share something with them, not only food ... but to spend time with them,” he said.

Yaman, a 24-year-old Syrian, arrived with his brother via Turkey, one of the main exit routes from the war in his homeland. “They told us they really liked us and want us to stay in Apeldoorn. They didn’t treat us any differently than the people living here.”

European Union governments this week adopted a plan to distribute 120,000 asylum-seekers across the 28-member bloc over two years, which, including a previous quota, takes to the number needing lodgings and assistance to 160,000.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says however that a million people will request asylum this year and up to 450,000 of those will be eligible to stay in the EU.

“You can’t take a refugee into the home in the same way you take in someone for 48 hours when they are victims of flooding,” said Pierre Henry, head of France Terre d‘asile, one of the charities that deal with migrants. “It’s a long-term welcome.”

($1 = 0.8933 euros)

Writing and additional reporting by Brian Love; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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