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Cities of refuge
13 min read

The impossibility and invincibility of ICORN

There are today 52 cities of refuge around the world. Helge Lunde, director of ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network), the organization that coordinates the world’s cities of refuge for persecuted and threatened writers and artists, here tells the story of how it all got started and the challenges faced by the organization.

Credits Text: Helge Lunde March 10 2016

The history
During a meeting in Stavanger, Norway on 9-10 June 2006 between representatives from 15 cities and a few PEN International members, ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, was born. As new and unique the creation could seem, there was of course a history behind:

The International Parliament of Writers (IPW) was established after an appeal launched in July 1993 by 300 writers from around world, in reaction to the increase of writers assassinations in Algeria. The signatories affirmed the need for a new international structure capable of organizing a concrete solidarity with persecuted writers. On 27 June 1994 the IPW was formally established, with Salman Rushdie as its first president. He was later succeeded by the writers Wole Soyinka and Russell Banks. IPW had its base first in Strasbourg, then moved to Paris. Christian Salmon became its executive director, and renowned French intellectuals like Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu committed themselves strongly. IPW’s charter was formally adopted by the Council of Europe, and approved by the European Parliament.

IPW formed INCA, the International Network of Cities of Asylum, and more than 25 cities joined in, from all over Europe, USA and Mexico. The INCA member cities committed themselves to host, protect and promote a persecuted writer for one year. The writers were selected, qualified and recommend by a committee of writers and experts set up by the IPW. The IPW furthermore decided “to defend the freedom of creation wherever it is threatened and to undertake investigation and research on the new forms of censorship”. A new and comprehensive annual review, AUTODAFE, became the important promotional tool, in collaboration with various publishing houses around the world.

However, as the new millennium appeared, IPW and INCA started to face several financial and organizational challenges. Funders withdrew support, and member cities ceased connecting. In 2004, the IPW dissolved, and in 2005, INCA was formally disbanded.

Hôtel de Ville (The Paris City Hall) is venue for the ICORN General Assembly and celebration of its 10 years anniversary end March 2016. Already back in February 2004, it played a remarkable role as simultaneous venue, both for the disintegration of INCA and the future emergence ICORN. INCA had summoned its member cities to a crisis/survival meeting, aiming for consolidation and a new beginning for the network. The summit proved unsuccessful for rescuing INCA, but by gathering some of its still most active members, it indirectly led to the first ICORN seeds being sown. The cities of Frankfurt and Stavanger had met for the first time, and on the immediate aftermath of the Paris summit, they decided to explore the potentials to continue the ever more important work to offer refuge for persecuted writers.

Successively, a year later, the City of Stavanger gathered former and still present INCA members to meet and explore the issue more in detail: Would it be possible, based on the undoubted successes and hard learned failures of IPW and INCA, to imagine a new initiative, a new sustainable and effective structure, to be born? A new global movement, where cities (and regions) could reunite and reinforce their efforts to protect and promote writers at risk from all over the world? The meeting agreed that yes, it is worth to take that chance, and the host of the meeting (the City of Stavanger) was challenged to make sure a new network could be legally and physically grounded.

And then it happened, after receiving upstart funding from the municipality of Stavanger, the Norwegian MFA, Fritt Ord and Sigrid Rausing Trust, a foundational meeting could be called in from Stavanger in June 2006, and ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network came into being.

10 years have passed, and an in many ways incredible history has unfolded. It has yet to be properly collected and recorded. For now a few notes from a far from objective, but all the more engaged, not to say enchanted position, about the impossibility and invincibility of the new creation.

The impossibility
The very brief account of the rise and fall of IPW and INCA above, does of course neither pay proper respect to their incredible achievements, nor does it lay bare the real reasons for their downfall. It delivers sufficient ammunition, though, for the first argument for the impossibility of ICORN: It has been tried before, and it very clearly and visibly failed. Or rather, the story about INCA blatantly demonstrated that however humane and justified the cause is, whatever famous and professional resources you engage, there is no guarantee that the work succeeds over time.

One of the clearly unsolved matters was the “post placement syndrome”: What happens after the one year residency? In many cases, the writer could travel to another member city, but what if he/she had a family? Wasn’t there a risk of developing an increasingly closed circuit, with only limited possibilities to invite new candidates into the network? Another difficult question concerned the selection/qualification procedure: Can you really over time count on a committee of supreme writers and experts, to deliver the right judgments on which persecuted writer deserves a safe haven, and who does not?

Secondly, what can cities like Chiusi, Brussels, Molde, Stockholm, Luzern, Pittsburgh, Hannover and Mexico City have in common, what would bind them and 40, 50, 60 or more other cities together in a meaningful and sustainable context? Does the act of inviting one single writer or artist at risk really distinguish an ICORN City from any other towns, cities, metropolises on planet earth? Especially in our times of migration waves and refugee crisis, is not privileging one single person among the huge crowds of needing ones, a way of toing our hands, polishing the human image of a city, for almost no cost?

Or seen from the inverse angle: What does a city get back from a long term investment in becoming and ICORN city? One is expected to provide accommodation, cover salary/survival costs, to integrate the resident in the society and to staff up the administration of the membership. Furthermore, one have to pay only to be a member, and cover all transport costs for the resident, from the area of the persecution to the hosting city. A membership in a club with other cities, a status as a city of refuge, an invitation to a (self costed) annual meeting. Does that really pay the price? Can a serious international organisation be built on expected loyal, long term commitment from cities, on that kind of premises?

If so, then thirdly, does a city know what it does when it takes one writer, artist, human rights defender, out of her national struggle, her organic, regional context, and into a completely alienated, faraway environment? A network like ICORN, would it not, especially as it grows and widens its scope, contribute to a brain drain of considerable proportions? Leaving all the colleagues of the chosen ICORN resident on the ground bereft of a resource person they would have needed for their battle for human rights and freedom of expression?

It seems a deep paradox is built into the very structure of the network: “ICORN is a temporary, long term safe residency system”. What can be long term, and truly temporary, at one and the same time? ICORN states clearly that it is not, and can never be, a refugee organisation, a network of city hosting refugees that happens to be poets, journalists, bloggers, publishers or others. However, when an ICORN resident has recovered from trauma/persecution, accommodated to her new milieu, started to reach out to local and international audiences, how much sense does it make to tell her that in two months, the residency has come to an end? Maybe, if she is single, there might be new options coming up, ICORN related or not, that can make sense. But if she is married, with five children, and indefinitely barred from returning home, where are the viable, sustainable alternatives?

The invincibility
More than twenty years have passed since the original idea to ask cities to protect and promote persecuted writers was born and started to materialize. It is more than ten years since the International Network of Cities of Asylum collapsed, and the preparations for the new creation was due. What then, are the reasons why we dare to return to Hotel de Ville in Paris, not for the final burial, but to celebrate ICORN’s 10 years anniversary, with some considerable successes, and even with prospects of further growth and expansion?

An important history lesson was that to convince cities to do this work over time, they needed to engaged, committed and empowered. The responsibility for running the network could not rest on the shoulders of a committee of distinguished writers. Hard working volunteers allied with municipal civil servants were the new ICORN avantgarde. The governance model with the general assembly of member cities as ICORN's highest organ and the elected city delegates constituting its executive board, was not made to satisfy funders or for glossy power point presentations. It was the real lifeline of the movement, securing organizational efficiency, and ownership among the doers and movers on the ground.

Positive energies were hence released from day one. Win/win situations emerged; the more the city invested in protection and promotion of their ICORN residents, the more they got back. Barcelona, Brussels, Frankfurt, Norwich, Stockholm and Stavanger launched the EU supported Shahrazad – stories for life project in 2007, to give maximum attention to and amplify the voices of their ICORN residents, and to the colleagues in all other cities in the network. Frequent regional and national encounters, and major annual meetings catered for exchange of ideas, experiences, challenges and successes among all involved parties. When ICORN cities like Malmö, Barcelona, Stavanger and Mexico City made it a top priority to recruit new cities to join the network, one could not thing of better foundation for growth and expansion.

ICORN took another significant differing path than its predecessors, by twinning fundamentally with PEN International, the world's leading literature and freedom of expression organisation. Closely connected, but with arm lengths professional distance to PEN's Writers in Prison Committee, the assessment and qualification regime was established, proving to become such an important signature for the ICORN brand. From its London headquarters, but with 150 affiliated centres in more than 100 countries, PEN International delivered the global, sustainable instrument ICORN needed to serve the increasing numbers of applicants and member cities. As the relations between PEN and ICORN developed, ICORN could also benefit in many other ways from the commitment and energies mobilized by members of all the PEN centres around the world.

In 2010, ICORN consolidated from being a loose network to becoming an independent, international membership organization. Interdependence, though, not competition and professional prestige was the trademark and way forward. Through durable and fruitful exchanges with an increasing amount of cooperation partners around the world, a more distinct, flexible and sustainable identity emerged: A temporary, long term safe residency system; a small, but indispensable bolt in the global chain of protection and promotion measures for writers, artists and human rights defenders at risk. When the ICORN General Assembly in 2014 decided to widen the scope to invite also nonverbal artists at risk to apply for ICORN residencies, it happened as an organic, legitimate extension of the network's outreach.

It cannot be stated clearly enough: the creation of ICORN and the celebration of its 10 years anniversary would make no sense, or rather, it would and could never had happened, if it was not for the incredible strength, courage and creativity performed by the fighters for human rights and freedom of expression around the world. More than 150 poets, journalists, playwrights, bloggers, musicians, publishers, novelists, filmmakers, cartoonists, editors and other persecuted human rights defenders have found refuge in ICORN cities since 2006. The diverse and creative ways they enrich, inspire and challenge their host communities are indisputable. ICORN residents are continuing to work for change in their home countries, often more comprehensive and effective than they could before leaving.

Last year’s awards of the Nobel Price in Literature and the Nobel Peace Price accentuates a major component of ICORN’s work. Both Svetlana Alexiewich (Belarus) and Sihem Bensedrine (co-founder of the Human Rights League, currently chair of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission) were exiled during capital periods of the last decades, and both of them used ICORN residencies (Gothenburg and Barcelona) as base camps for their fight for human rights and freedom of expression in their home countries. They both have been able to return and continue their work in Belarus and Tunisia. While for instance Palestinian rapper Khaled Harara runs hip-hop workshops for youngsters in Gaza from his Gothenburg shelter, Moroccan journalist Zineb el Rhazoui wrote and writes for Charlie Hebdo from ICORN shelters in Ljubljana and Paris, and Libyan poet and academic Ashur Etwebi fights for the future of his country from his ICORN residency in Trondheim.


When inaugurating the original network back in the 1995, Jacques Derrida asked: “Could the city, equipped with new rights and a greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility previous undreamt of by international law?” Twenty years later, we can at least start to see dreams of an emerging new order: “Let us be the ones that make the change. Let us be the ones that are the welcomers”, Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said last November contemplating his city joining ICORN in an increasingly xenophobic American climate. And upon signing the ICORN agreement a month before, Wroclaw Mayor Rafal Dutkiewics stated: “Especially in times like ours, when nations are put under pressure by unprecedented political challenges, it is important that cities can step forward underlining the values of hospitality and solidarity.”

On the brink of the 2016 ICORN General Assembly in Paris, the last word goes to its Mayor Ms. Anne Hidalgo: “Throughout the 20th century, the City of Paris has been host to exiles from around the world, for intellectuals and artists. The values of human rights and freedom of expression is at the core of the international strategy of our city. Being a part of ICORN, hosting writers, journalists and artists at risk, is both a very concrete and an important symbolic fulfilment of our commitment.”

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