Monday, 28 July 2014

Cities of Refuge

by Catriona Troth

I have written before about writers who are refugees and asylum seekers – particularly those who are part of Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life group, so I was intrigued to be asked to write about the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).
Extremism (2013) by ICORN guest writer Fadi Abou Hassan, Drøbak city of refuge 

ICORN offers a place of refuge to writers who, as a direct consequence of their writing are either

· At risk of being killed, abducted, physically attacked or “disappearing”.

· Sentenced to (or at risk of being sentenced to) a prison term

· Unable to express themselves freely for fear of persecution

Some of the most vulnerable writers have already fled to other countries when they apply and are living without status, often in extreme economic hardship.

Each city focuses on one writer at a time, providing a Guest Writer with a safe place to stay and economic security for two years. The guest writers can work in safe surroundings and take part in the cultural life of the host city. They are also given time to think about a more permanent solution to their situation.

ICORN works in closely with PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, who evaluate each application and determine the authenticity of any declared danger or the likelihood of threatened persecution being carried out. However, the decision to invite any given writer rests with the individual City of Refuge.

2013 saw a dramatic increase in applications, driven in part by the war in Syria and in part by an increase in awareness of the role of ICORN. In the past twelve months, 29 writers have taken up residence in ICORN member cities. Current guest writers come from countries including Iraq, Palestine, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Yemen, China, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Georgia and Belarus – but the majority currently come from Iran and Syria.

Lawon Barszczewski (photo credit -
ICORN’s newest guest writer is Lawon Barszczewski from Belarus, who has suffered discrimination for speaking out internationally about human rights abuses in his home country. Barszczewski was welcomed to Krakow , which in 2011 became first city in Central and Eastern Europe to join ICORN.

A Parliament of Writers

The concept of ICORN goes back to July 1993, when Algerian writer Tahar Djaout was assassinated. More than 300 writers signed a petition calling for a system of organised aid for persecuted writers. This led to the establishment of the International Parliament of Writers, with Salman Rushdie as its first president.

In 1995, the European Charter of Cities of Asylum was adopted by the Council of Europe, giving a legal and institutional framework for providing asylum to writers. This charter lay the foundations for the International Network of Cities of Asylum (INCA), which eventually expanded to include 34 cities in Europe, the USA and Africa. INCA was eventually disbanded in 2005. However those who had been involved did not want to see its goals and ideals abandoned and in December 2005, ICORN was formed, with its administrative centre in Stavanger, Norway.

ICORN currently comprises 44 cities in 14 countries. At present, the only active City of Refuge outside of Europe is Mexico City. The majority (29) are in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. There is one City of Refuge in the UK (Norwich), with others in the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Iceland, Slovenia and Poland. Those in the planning stages include cities in Switzerland, the USA, Colombia, South Africa, and Brazil.

Chenjerai Hove
Norway has been exceptional in its support of refugee writers. Those who come to one of its thirteen Cities of Refuge – as Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove did in 2005 – are given an automatic residence permit, and the Cities of Refuge work is supported by the State. Because of this, those writers applying to ICORN who may never be able to return to their home countries are sent, wherever possible, to Norway.

Most, though, are not looking for permanent refugee status, but simply some time and space to write and to express themselves freely.

Sayar Bayati

My Language: My Treasure 

Of course, for many writers, while they gain a place of safety, they lose something too. Not only have they left behind their homes and families, but often their language as well. As Iranian writer Sahar Bayati (newly arrived guest writer in Haugesund City of Refuge in Norway) expressed it in an interview for Pen International, “I write in Persian, which is my treasure – I can play with words and explore, whereas in Norwegian I feel like a baby dependent on others.”

One thing all exiled writers want is a way to publish their work. In 2007, six ICORN cities (Barcelona, Brussels, Frankfurt, Norwich, Stavanger, and Stockholm) joined together to create Shahrazad Stories for Life, a website and project to promote the voices of all ICORN writers. The project ran until 2012, and at this year’s ICORN General Assembly in Ljubljana there were calls for another similar collaborative project to be launched, to provide a platform for publishing and touring, and to give writers training in digital self-publishing.

Helge Lund, Executive Director

Executive Director of ICORN, Helge Lunde has been involved with exiled writers since Stavanger became one of the first Cities of Asylum in 1998.
Mansur Rajih

Helge, what inspired you to become involved with writers in exile?

I started working a director of an international festival for literature and freedom of speech in my hometown Stavanger, Norway in 1998. At that time the city was already member of the International Parliament of Writers' (IPW) network of cities of asylum, and I became the coordinator for Mansur Rajih, a magnificent poet who came straight to Stavanger after 15 years imprisonment in Yemen. Then my future was sealed in many ways. Together with Norwegian PEN presiden,t Kjell Olaf Jensen, I worked with expanding the network to other cities in Norway, and when IPW and their network collapsed in 2005, I was very glad and privileged to take part in forming ICORN, which I have been directing since.

Norway provides some state support for Cities of Refuge – but how is the work financed elsewhere?

The Norwegian Cities of Refuge receives their guest writers as refugees, hence the major basic expenses (salary, housing) is covered by the state, as with all other UN refugees. This is an exception; ICORN as such is a long term, but temporary placement system. Although there are regional and national similarities, every city of refuge is composed in different ways, structurally and financially. The municipality is in charge, but gains support from several sources/partners, private, public, local, national, trans-national.

Living in a city for two years is very different from visiting for a couple of weeks. What support are writers given to cope with the culture shock and the change of language?

Exchange of ideas and experiences between member cities, between guest writers and throughout the entire network is the key to upholding a sustainable refuge systeme of this kind. We see win-win situtations between host cities and guest writers multiply, but many times it takes weeks, months, even towards a year before a persecuted and traumatized writer can feel safe enough to engage actively with the host community.

For those who do not want to claim permanent refugee status, what happens when they return to their home countries? I imagine they remain on the radar of Pen International. Does their raised profile internationally tend to afford them some protection when they go home?

For those who are able to return to their home country after finishing their refuge in an ICORN city, ICORN, PEN International and other organisations/bodies are working together to maximise protection measures. A raised international profile usually helps, but unfortunately we also see examples of the opposite. What we call the "post placement challenge" is maybe the most pressing issue for an organisation like ICORN to tackle. There is and can never be one single solution to such a task, only increased, targeted efforts between all involved parties (the writers included) can keep the network going on a more sustainable basis.

Are there any writers’ stories that have particularly touched you over the years?

The stories are, luckily, mounting up. Lots of success stories, about writers who once were silenced and censored, who has, thanks to the fantastic work in/by the ICORN cities, has regained their strong and creative voice. I mentioned Mansur Rajih, arriving in Stavanger already in 1998. Many years later I could hear him shouting from his guest writer office nearby my own desk. Rushing out to see what was happening, I soon realised that he was shouting into a phone his message to a large crowd in his hometown Sanaa, in Yemen, which gathered at the market place could hear Mansur inspire them to keep up the good spirit of the Arab uprisings.

How would you like to see ICORN expand and develop over the next few years?

To see even one new ICORN city develop, and in the end successfully invite and integrate their first guest writer, is worth all what we have invested in the ICORN network so far. Luckily, we see the network growing, and it will be amazing to follow in the next months and years how new shelter cities emerge, not only in Europe, but increasingly also in Canada, US, Latin America, Australia and Africa.

Thank you, Helge.

You can read more about ICORN and hear the stories of the guest writers in their own words at Or you can follow them on Twitter at

Swedish Pen publishes the Dissident Blog, which includes the ICORN Relay – a series of post from ICORN guest writers.


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