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Europe's refugee crisis spurs online activism, but few long-term solutions

As politicians continue to debate, some activists have taken matters into their own hands

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Max Thalbach has spent the past month helping refugees cross European borders. He doesn't hide them in the trunk of his car or ferry them across the Mediterranean. Instead, he publishes tips and advice on how to slip past roadway checkpoints: never carry cash, dress discreetly, always travel with a lead car and speak in code.

It's all part of a web-based campaign the 29-year-old launched over the summer with the other members of the Peng Collective, an activist group founded two years ago in Berlin. Those caught helping undocumented people cross European borders face up to 10 years in prison, and Thalbach is well aware of the risk — that's why he uses Max Talbach as a pseudonym. But the group has set up an online fund to help cover legal costs, and Thalbach remains confident that its activism is "legitimate."

"For years, Europe was sleeping," he says. "And it took a long time for us to wake up. Really long."

An outpouring of online support

Recent weeks have seen an outpouring of support for refugees fleeing war-torn countries like Syria, and much of that support has taken the form of social media groups and petitions, smartphone apps to aid travel and communication, and crowdfunding websites to launch wide-ranging campaigns. Some, like the Berlin-based organization Refugees Welcome, use the internet to meet basic short-term needs, such as housing and clothes. Others, like a recent online petition in the UK, seek broader policy change. Those behind the campaigns say they took action in response to government inertia, and many tout their early achievements, though it's unclear whether their online activism will have lasting impacts without broader policy change.

Migrants and refugees have streamed across Europe's borders in recent years, with most fleeing war and repressive governments, and the numbers have swelled in the last few months. More than 224,000 migrants and refugees entered Europe through the first seven months of this year, according to the UN's refugee agency, surpassing the total for all of 2014. Most come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. Thousands have died trying to make the voyage, and those who arrive are often relegated to makeshift camps and legal limbo.

As the crisis has grown more acute, some governments have responded by increasing their refugee quotas. Germany, which expects to see 800,000 refugees by the end of this year, said this month that it could accept 500,000 every year going forward, while France has pledged to take in 24,000 over the next two years. On Thursday, President Barack Obama said the US would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees through next year. But aid groups say those efforts are still insufficient, and EU member states have yet to agree on a proposal to relocate 160,000 refugees across the continent.

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Many refugees arriving in Europe are relegated to makeshift camps.

As a result, many citizens and activists have taken it upon themselves to help asylum-seekers, with a wave of volunteerism and tech-driven campaigns. Refugees Welcome uses its website to match displaced people with Europeans willing to house them, adopting a "sharing economy" model that has earned it the nickname "Airbnb for refugees." A more spontaneous housing initiative sprang up in Iceland last month, where more than 10,000 Facebook users offered to take in refugees after the government said it would only accept 50.

Other efforts aim to help refugees integrate in European society. Two German companies recently launched a smartphone app to help refugees deal with local bureaucracy in the city of Dresden, the site of anti-migration protests earlier this year, and a Swedish startup is working on an app to help them apply for jobs. Among the more head-scratching campaigns is a Berlin-based initiative to teach refugees how to code.

On the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, more than 1,500 campaigns have been launched in support of refugees in Europe, with campaigns for Syrian refugees jumping by 60 percent between July and August, according to the site. Some focus on individual families, while others raise funds for broader populations. So far, these campaigns have raised more than $5 million, according to Indiegogo.

"We're helping people in need."

Campaign organizers say their efforts have already had an impact. Refugees Welcome has placed 140 refugees in flat shares, according to its website, and the group's founders have said they're "overwhelmed" by a flood of volunteers opening their homes. In the UK, a petition calling for the government to accept more refugees garnered 400,000 signatures — four times the amount needed to be considered by Parliament.

Thalbach's group claims to have carried out 569 "escape aid operations" so far. He says the group doesn't differentiate between refugees fleeing war and economic migrants, and discounts criticism from those who say their efforts could pose security risks. "That's just totally stupid," he says. "Any terrorist that wants to get into Germany has way better means of doing it. They just buy a passport and that's it... We're helping people in need."

A North African refugee who used Peng Collective's network to enter Germany told Al Jazeera this month that the group's guidance was critical to making it across the border. "There are a lot of controls on buses and trains," he said. "And sometimes cars are also controlled, but your chances are better. That's why the help was important."

Making it to Europe and finding shelter is an important first step for refugees, but they still rely on governments to obtain asylum and employment status, limiting the potential impact of coding schools and job-finding smartphone apps. Whether these initiatives will spur policy change remains unclear, though some governments have signaled a willingness to open their borders. It also remains to be seen whether the surge of volunteerism will endure, or if those opening their homes to asylum-seekers will commit over the long term.

"In the early days, we saw the [UK] government being very against accepting any more refugees into the country, and yet at the same time we saw this mass outpouring of willingness by thousands of people to open up their houses, to offer help," says Mark Graham, associate professor and senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. "Whether that's related to this mass outpouring and willingness to help, I'm not sure, but there's definitely been a shift in the last week or so."

"Solidarity is very good and important, but it probably won't change much in European migration policies."

Julien Brachet, a researcher at Oxford University's International Migration Institute, says grassroots campaigns can provide "life-saving" solutions in the short term, because "people and associations can act much faster than governments" in delivering basic needs. He also believes that groups like Refugees Welcome and the Iceland Facebook campaign may help to integrate displaced people over the long term.

But public opinion on the crisis remains deeply divided across Europe, and Brachet says substantive change can only come from governments opening their borders out of "moral" obligation. Doing that may be akin to "political suicide" for states with strong right-wing contingents.

"I feel that this kind of solidarity is very good and important, but it probably won't change much in European migration policies," Brachet says. "After the war in Libya in 2011, we saw the same kinds of initiatives, and nothing happened after that — it was just the same hardening of European policies."

Thalbach is equally circumspect about the prospects for policy change. "For sure we are working to change things, even though intellectually, I'm extremely pessimistic when I look at the world," he says. He acknowledges that the Peng Collective has limited influence on the broader refugee crisis, though he remains encouraged by Germany's willingness to accept more refugees, and the country's broader support for open borders. "We're a small stone in the mosaic," Thalbach says. "We're a little part in this whole social movement."