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In Swiss Tri-Border Region, Citizens Extend Helping Hand To Homeless Asylum Seekers

Turned away from state centers in and around Switzerland’s Basel, some migrant asylum seekers have had no choice but to sleep on the streets. A handful of concerned citizens, however, have organized through e-mail and Facebook to offer their homes as emer

A snow storm in Basel, Switzerland (pppspics)
A snow storm in Basel, Switzerland (pppspics)
Matthias Chapman

BASEL -- In recent weeks, asylum seekers in and around the Swiss tri-border city of Basel have been turned away at supposedly full-to-beyond-capacity state centers before they even had a chance to fill out the forms necessary to request asylum. "As these people are not yet registered as asylum seekers, we don't know who they are," Michael Glauser, spokesman for the Swiss Federal Office for Migration (BFM) told the SDA press agency.

According to the BFM's most recent information, some 40 asylum seekers were turned away in Basel. There were a handful of individual cases in the nearby French-speaking canton of Vaud as well, and in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, people were being sent on to other centers. Women and children were always taken in, said Glauser: the centers have emergency reserve capacity in case.

Solidarité sans Frontières, a Swiss organization that works with migrants and asylum seekers, said it was "shocked" by the intolerable conditions in Basel. The group refutes claims that the situation is being caused by a "flood of North African asylum seekers." The problems instead reflect systematic structural attempts to reduce services, according to Solidarité sans Frontières.

A Swiss organization that helps refugees, Schweizerische Flüchtlingshilfe (SFH), said on Wednesday that it was "extremely concerned." The group accuses Swiss authorities of violating asylum laws.

Concerned citizens

Last Sunday afternoon, Almut Rembges happened to pass the federal asylum seekers' center in Basel, where she noticed what looked like a family sitting on the ground about 200 meters from the facility. Winter had just kicked in. Weather conditions, in other words, were such that it was unlikely the family was just agreeably passing the afternoon outdoors.

"Then some other asylum seekers came up to me and asked for help," says the artist and activist. They told her the family had been turned away for lack of room at the center. Rembges went to talk to the security personnel at the door, who finally agreed to let the family in.

Rembges began to worry that what she had witnessed personally could turn into a full-blown emergency situation, with people being forced to sleep outdoors in freezing weather. That this could be happening in Switzerland is "unacceptable," she says. Rembges began patrolling the area around the center, and encouraged friends and acquaintances to do the same. "I set up a Doodle, and 20 people signed up." They take turns monitoring the entrance to the center.

But what if there really was no room at the center? That's what happened last Monday when a small group from Eritrea – three women, two children and a young man – were turned away. "I sent word out by e-mail and on Facebook and immediately people got back offering a total of 25 beds," says Rembges.

One of the people who responded was Anni Lanz, a well known migrant rights activist. "The asylum seekers from Eritrea spent the night here. We have a large guest bedroom," she says.

Before opening her home to the migrants, Lanz spoke with the head of the Basel center and asked him to accept the Eritreans. He refused, saying "they didn't have a single mattress left." That's when Lanz organized transportation for the group and offered her own place as emergency quarters.

Spagetti and a smile

For Lanz this wasn't an unusual situation. The activist, now in her 60s, is in the habit of opening her home to people who need help. She was also happy to offer her visitors a hot meal. "I made Spaghetti Napoli for the Eritreans," she says.

Does it make her feel disappointed or angry knowing she is providing services that should be offered by the state? "Naturally, I think the state should be friendlier to foreigners," she replies. "But making people welcome shouldn't just be up to the state. It should be part of our culture."

As for the cost, she says she has ample enough retirement benefits to be able to share with others. She says too that she's never had problems with anyone she reached out to. Lanz insists, furthermore, that her generosity is normal. "There are a lot of people who would act the same way I do," she says.

What does make Lanz angry is that many of those asylum seekers refused at the centers are sent to Italy, where the situation is generally far worse than it is in Switzerland. "There, they get nothing: no shelter, no food."

The good news is that the situation in Basel has improved. A bomb shelter in nearby Pratteln was opened as an emergency option and since then, Rembges says, she hasn't found anybody turned out on the street. But that doesn't mean she's ready to stop patrolling the streets. "Solutions," like the bomb shelter in Pratteln, can prove illusory. Rembges found out later, for example, that her efforts on behalf of that first family she assisted were only partially sucessful. The men ended up being turned away despite her intervention.

Read the original story in German

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