Refugees moving to a new city face many challenges. Though many of them have the support of a caseworker, stable housing can be hard to come by. Having free, temporary housing gives them peace-of-mind while they start their new life. Your home could help someone get settled into their new community.
—“Host Newcomers Who Are Moving to Your City.” Airbnb Open Homes, https://www.airbnb.com/openhomes/refugee-housing. Accessed February 29, 2020.
THE TRIUMPH of the global shelter imaginary now rests on in its near transparency. The successful subordination of the refugee to the given image of refugee has presupposed the liberalization of “Better Shelters” and “protection spaces” to such an extent that these concepts no longer carry the institutional burdens associated with their original names. The proliferation of “Better Shelters” has gone hand-in-hand with their disappearance as such. The plasticized structures no longer carry their original name, except in the social-media posts of their inventors. More commonly, they are now designated as RHUs (short for Refugee Housing Units, in UN parlance) even as their function as postemergency dwellings regularly competes with and gives way to demand for the flat-pack huts to serve as offices, clinics, and pandemic-era quarantine structures.1 Having represented the substitution of protection with relief so successfully, the Better Shelter is no longer tasked exclusively with the branding of refugee domesticity as a surrogate for rights.2
“Protection Space” always implied the extension of the same tacit swap of relief for rights to any location on the planet. Conceived of as a way to acknowledge and at the same time contain the challenges to camp humanitarianism posed by the existence of a growing number of “urban refugees,” protection space has, like the Better Shelter, given way to the forms of its generalization. The IASC’s “egg model” off assistance-cum-protection has been superseded by any equally fantastic paradigm developed by the hospitality industry: the Airbnb refugee.
“Open Homes” and the Closure of Refugee Rights
Offering its hosts an opportunity to accommodate refugees as well as paying customers, Airbnb launched its “Open Homes” program in February 2017—about a year after the launch of the Better Shelter. According to Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia, “In the past, it was really difficult for people to open up their home to someone in need”; Open Homes allows Airbnb hosts to offer their rooms for free to asylum seekers and refugees—or, more precisely, to organizations taking charge of their welfare—and therefore make it easier for homeowners to contribute to accommodating the displaced.3 Referring to the global “refugee crisis” that reached a peak in the summer of 2017, Gebbia claimed that, “now leveraging Airbnb’s core competency is easy for anyone who has a spare room or apartment and wants to connect with relief organizations and play a small role in tackling this global challenge.”4
The “people in times of need” that Open Homes proposes to support are categorized as “evacuees, relief workers, medical patients and their caregivers, refugees, and asylum seekers.”5 This list symptomatizes the practical, political, and ideological labor of the global shelter imaginary; including refugees and asylum seekers among diverse other groups with housing needs, their legal status and rights are replaced by a generic status of homelessness. The substitution of rightless relief for rights is here at once rehearsed and expanded: with the advent of Open Homes, now “the public” is able to augment the state in the provision of this relief.
This substitution marks the liberation of the paradigm of abandonment as assistance from the camp and its global deployment in the fiction of its liberalization—i.e. that this assistance can now be provided without state guarantors of protection because “protection space” itself migrates. And yet, even as the introduction of rightless refugee relief to the putative sharing economy presents itself as a triumph of moral action—an opportunity for compassionate individuals to assist suffering others—it furthers the transformation of refugee protection from a right that states are obligated to respect into a privilege that is provided according to the racialized and gendered economy of supply and demand.
On the one hand, the Open Homes platform takes care to inform refugees, asylum seekers, and their legal hosts that
Guests using Open Homes for Refugee or Asylum Seeker housing can only book through a trusted nonprofit partner. All guests must have the legal status of a recognized refugee entitled to international protection as determined by the UNHCR and/or have begun the process of seeking asylum in the country where they currently reside.6
And yet, on the other hand, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers as guaranteed by the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international agreements are ignored in favor of the putative capacity of the housing market to accommodate them.7 With the advent of Airbnb’s Open Homes program, then, the fate of refugees with respect to accommodation now can rest on being chosen as a “guest” by an Airbnb host. (What appears as a blessing is yet another hurdle). “Everyday @airbnb hosts are welcoming strangers into their homes and building bridges between cultures and communities . . . We must stand with refugees and do our part to promote belonging for ALL people.”8 This tweet from Joe Gebbia, on the occasion of 2018’s World Refugee Day, eloquently speaks to the moralized closure of refugee politics advanced by Airbnb’s Open Homes program.
Between IKEA’s Better Shelter, on the one hand, and Airbnb’s Open Homes, on the other, the claim of the refugee on political understanding and cognition is, for all intents and purposes, dissipated. What remains, instead, is a sociodicy of relief in which the humanitarian order confuses itself for its object. This is how, finally, the contemporary history of refuge is marked by what Jacques Derrida called “an always possible perversion of the law of hospitality” into its contrary: the abrogation of cosmopolitan right.9