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Free Ubers and Helpful iPhone Apps: How Europeans Are Helping Refugees

In the past several weeks there has been a rise of creative efforts by private citizens to rescue, resettle and offer other ways to help the thousands of people arriving at Europe's borders every day.
Un policía danés juega con una niña inmigrante en la autopista E45 del norte de Padborg 09 Septiember 2015. (Imagen por EPA/Claus Fisker)

Read more about the international migrant crisis in VICE News' blog 'Open Water.'

As European Union leaders remain stalled over how to address the worst refugee crisis since World War II, European citizens have quietly taken matters into their own hands.

In the past several weeks there has been a rise of creative efforts by private citizens to rescue, resettle, and offer other ways to help the thousands of people arriving at Europe's borders every day. One high-profile example recently came from the Pope, who announced on Sunday that he would personally house two refugee families at the Vatican and called for every Catholic parish and convent to do the same.


"The gospel calls on us and asks us to be the neighbor of the smallest and the most abandoned, to give them concrete hope," said Pope Francis during his Sunday address in Saint Peter's Square. It is not enough just to say, "have courage, be patient," to the thousands fleeing war and hunger, he added.

In Germany, which has become the top destination for asylum-seekers, a Berlin couple started an organization, called "Refugees Welcome," that is being described as the "Airbnb for refugees." The organization matches refugees with people offering up their homes and its founders say they have been overwhelmed in recent weeks by offers from people in England, Austria, and Germany.

Related: America Is 'Committed to' Taking in More Syrian Refugees, According to John Kerry

An estimated 20,000 people arrived in Germany last weekend, according to ABC News. The country expects to receive 800,000 total refugees this year.

A similar group, called Citizen UK, is campaigning to get local British authorities to pledge to resettle 50 refugees each, or 10,000 total, in the next two years. Other high-profile British celebrities have said they would personally house refugees themselves.

More than 380,000 people have arrived on Europe's shores via sea in 2015 so far, with almost 3,000 missing or dead, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. A third of them came in August alone.

On Tuesday, Norwegian hotel billionaire Petter Stordalen said that he would house refugees for 5,000 nights at his hotels free of charge. Norway's immigration department said they would consider taking Stordalen up on his offer if their refugee centers reached capacity, reported Norwegian news site the Local.


Others are using even more direct methods to help refugees. A caravan of Austrian volunteers in 140 cars set out for Hungary over the weekend to pick up refugees and drop off food, medical supplies and tents. Migration Aid, a grassroots Hungarian organization, is sending volunteers to the border to help refugees find their assigned camps and begin the complicated resettlement process.

"We've seen unprecedented levels of support in the last week," said Tim Jenner, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee, which has been coordinating volunteer efforts on the Greek island of Lesbos. The offers to help from the general public have been "absolutely overwhelming," Jenner added.

There are plenty of others offering to help ease the resettlement process for people after they have arrived in Europe. A university in Germany announced that it will allow refugees to take classes for free this fall. Software engineers in Dresden have designed a smartphone app, called Welcome to Dresden, to provide refugees with practical information on how to register for social services and navigate the city. Even Uber has joined the effort, by organizing drivers in 23 European cities to pick up donations and drive them to designated drop off points this week.

Related: Do Not Be Afraid: EU Head Says Continent Must Welcome Refugees

Many of those engaging in these grassroots efforts say they are inspired to act because they see their governments as unwilling or unable to do enough to tackle the humanitarian disaster.


"The refugees here need food, they need money and they need places to stay overnight," Diana Henniges, a Berlin social worker who is volunteering to help resettle refugees in Germany, told the BBC. "The people are trying to help where the state can't manage."

The volunteer effort is making a difference, Jenner says, but it is not enough to address the broader refugee crisis if governments do not also play a part. "It's got to be a holistic approach [from the government and local community], added Jenner, "otherwise we won't build sustainable projects to help people in crisis."

Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and UNHCR, have urged countries to do more to accept refugees, especially those fleeing Syria's civil war. Amnesty International called the world's response to the Syrian refugee crisis "pitiful."

An increasing number of countries have bowed to the growing international pressure this week. On Wednesday, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a compulsory quota system for European countries to take 120,000 more refugees, up from the current 40,000. On Monday, Venezuela announced they would be willing to take 20,000 refugees, followed by a statement from Australia on Wednesday agreeing to take 12,000.

The EU's plan to take more refugees, as Juncker pointed out, would only account for 0.11 percent of the total European population. In Lebanon, on the other hand, Syrian refugees make up more than 25 percent of the population.


Related: Through Hell and Hungary: Riding the Rails With Refugees in Budapest

The innovative and creative ideas from private citizens are crucial to fill in the gaps, said Melissa Fleming, a spokesperson for UNHCR, but they do not address the fundamental source of the refugee crisis.

"Only governments can prevent and stop wars," Fleming said. "And governments have a responsibility to protect refugees fleeing across their borders."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928

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