The refugee crisis has lead to various demonstrations of solidarity from European citizens. August 2015 saw 12000 Icelanders (whose nation rates top of the Global Peace Index, while Syria is bottom) sign an open letter to their government demanding that they accept more than the 50 refugees they have pledged to take. Many were offering to host refugees in their own homes, and to provide services to help them integrate, such as language classes. Icelanders are not alone in volunteering their own time and space to welcome refugees, and from this trend, innovations have been born.
Refugees Welcome (Fluchtlinge Wilkommen) was formed in Germany in November 2014 and has been dubbed the AirBnB for refugees. People who can offer a space in their home sign up, and are matched with a refugee often through a local refugee charity. The initiative has snowballed and is now running in 9 European countries and has placed nearly 500 refugees. Homes for Syrians operates on a similar principle in the UK, but shows details of the homes that are available so that refugees or the organisation supporting them can apply directly for a listing. Innovations such as these have the twofold benefit of providing secure accommodation, and encouraging integration, as the refugees will improve their language skills and build local networks through the support of their new housemates.
The founders of Refugees Welcome stress that the experience is not just beneficial to the refugees, but also to the hosts. They use the example of Johann Schmidt, who has lived with his guest, Azad, from Iraq since the end of January 2015. Johann is quoted as saying: “Azad tells me about his home country time and again and can explain the overall context of the current situation to me in simple terms yet excitingly. As a result, I have learned quite a bit from him already and very much enjoy listening.”
If suitable accommodation cannot be found for all refugees, then temporary accommodation needs to be improved upon. A refugee can spend between one month and twenty years living in a camp, and innovators have not ignored this fact. Better Shelter, a Swedish social enterprise, has partnered with the IKEA foundation and UNHCR to create a flat-packed structure that can be used in camps in lieu of tents. The structure resembles a house, with windows and a lockable door to provide residents with more security. There is a solar panel in the roof that can power an LED light bulb or charge a mobile phone. Boasting a lightweight, stainless steel frame and modular parts that are delivered flat in two cardboard boxes, the structures can be assembled in four to eight hours. In 2015 the UNHCR signed a frame agreement for 30 000 of these shelters, and 1220 have already been shipped to their operation in Greece.
The Rockwool Group creates stone wool, which is a non-combustible material that can also be customised to absorb water. The group has previously used their product to create durable festival tents, but as of 2015 they have entered into a partnership with Danish charity, DanChurchAid, to test how stone wool could be used in refugee camps in a variety of ways: as insulation material, to grow crops, and to protect against flooding.
Another way to dramatically improve the residents’ quality of life in refugee camps is through better provision of electricity. WakaWaka, a company that makes portable solar energy devices, has taken note and created their Solar for Syria campaign. They function on a buy one, give one model and have a variety of products for providing lighting and charging phones. There are currently 56 550 WakaWaka products in use by Syrian refugees across camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Northern Iraq.
The scope of innovations that are developing to improve life in refugee camps is impressive and undeniably crucial. However, if we are serious about integrating refugees, and not just protecting them, we need to strive towards the ‘new culture of welcome’ championed by organisations such as Refugees Welcome and Homes for Syria.