Homeless refugee family reignites housing debate

Just before Christmas, a family of newly-arrived asylum seekers stood outside a Federal Migration Office receiving center in Basel. The center was full, the family was told, so they walked toward a nearby wooded area and public toilet. They asked other refugees if they could stay under an overhang attached to the toilet, to use as shelter in a falling snow.

The owner of the space has long worked with local refugees, with sometimes unconventional methods. She found the family a place to stay, and perhaps reignited the Basel debate over refugee housing. WRS’s Tony Ganzer reports.

The “bblackboxx” is what local artists and residents call the backside of this public toilet near Basel’s Otterbach Grenze, teetering on the border with Germany. The graffiti-kissed bblackboxx sits in a wooded area, frequented by joggers and dog walkers, but nearby there is a federal receiving center for refugees, and a well-fortified detention center for migrants waited to be deported.

“It was a space that I also used in my free time, and I met some people from the camp, and I was myself surprised that I didn’t notice what happens behind the trees,” says Almut Rembges, a Basel artist who now runs the No Border Café.

It’s a spot where refugees can grab a cup of tea, and have a space to meet.

“I thought it would be interesting to open a space, that is basically a free assembly space for the people,” she says. “Not only the refugees, maybe also people from the city, and to create an awareness.”

Rembges was part of a group painting outside the nearby detention facility on World Migration Day, when refugees began reporting a family wanted to sleep near the bblackboxx.

“They wanted to be accepted in the camp, but they told them that they should come back the next day. And as they had small kids, and also otherwise, we felt that we should do something,” she says. “My first impulse was just to take them to the city center, to make it visible.”

One of Rembges’ group offered to take the family in for the night, but Rembges took it further, publishing a letter on Facebook about the family and other migrants shut out of the center.

Soon, shelter-less refugees had offers from locals wanting to help, and officials opened another shelter two days later.


“You can always create a lack of space, so it is a way to keep a topic in the news,” says Francesca Falk, a political history researcher at the University of Basel.

She has guided tours and talks with the bblackboxx artists about Swiss immigration and the ideas of borders.

“I think there is a problem now, because it’s not fair–in each region you are treated in a different way, so you can be more or less lucky,” Falk says. “And there is always this lack of spaces. But also I think there is a difficulty in having just, you know, central places, because it is also important to integrate them.”

The Otterbach border crossing sits along a thin road into Germany, lined on one-side by elevated train tracks. Within a kilometer of the trees around the bblackboxx, there is an open field, the detention center surrounded by concertina wire, and a migration center with a playground out front.

Mickey is a refugee from Kosovo, and has been in Switzerland for 3 weeks, but on the road for 12 years. He is Roma, and each of his 4 children have been born in another country, a consequence of his nomadic search for asylum. He helped make a batch of tea in an old stove outside the bblackboxx.

“He thanks the people who work here, because people are not the same everywhere, and here he thanks people that do good things,” says Falk, translating Mickey’s words from Italian.

Mickey and a handful of others gathered around the old stove for warmth and tee. Others came to pick through a pile of donated clothes.

“For me, it is friendly here. It is good, you feel good,” says Bwallom, from Algeria.

He says he walked for three months to Switzerland from Greece, applying for asylum. He says his Canadian girlfriend will meet him here so he can start a new life, as a Christian, after being threatened, he says, by his Muslim family back home.

It was his first time at the bblackboxx.

“Switzerland people here he make friends with the foreigner, and he give him time to eat or drink, or if he has problems he can tell him,” Bwallom says. “That is what the people, the foreigner who come here—he don’t want money and your heart is closed. Just you you’re your heart and you be my friend, and finished.”

The work of Almut Rembges and others at the bblackboxx has evolved over the years, but the latest publicity in helping refugees by way of Facebook has lifted the group’s profile.

Locals have donated more clothes, and shown more interest in what happens far from the city center.

But Rembges says she doesn’t want to be a charity, and have refugees think its charity. She says just by being in the space, doing projects, then people can become people again.

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