What is a city of refuge?
ICORN is an international membership organisation for cities and regions dedicated to freedom of expression. Each ICORN member is a city of refuge and provides temporary shelter through residencies for persecuted writers and artists. The residency is typically for two years.
These cities of refuge are the cornerstones of ICORN and share a common mission: to advance freedom of expression and make a practical contribution to the threats and persecution that writers and artists face in their home countries and beyond.
How many members does ICORN have?
More than 70 cities have committed to the ICORN charter. The list is continually growing and will soon extend into Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Our members include Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels, Mexico City, Krakow, Norwich, Växjö and Bergen.
Who can become a city of refuge?
Any city willing to signify a commitment to freedom of expression and the membership agreement can become a member of ICORN. To be able to offer more residencies to the growing number of writers and artists who apply, the network needs more members. See Cities' guide to ICORN membership.
Why should my city become a city of refuge?
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee annually monitors between 8-900 cases of writers and artists who are persecuted as a direct consequence of their work. Many still need a safe place. Through ICORN, your city could enable these writers and artists to continue their work and keep up the fight for freedom of expression, so vital to the health of a free society.
This commitment by ICORN cities and regions is both very concrete and deeply symbolic: one agent for change (a writer or artist) escapes from imminent threats and persecution; your city offers sanctuary; and the values of hospitality, solidarity and freedom of expression become further enshrined within the ethos of your city.
By joining us, your city becomes part of a dynamic and global network of solidarity, creativity and mutual interaction. ICORN brings together cities and writers and artists in the network and hosts an annual gathering of all parties in one of the member cities. A wonderful assembly of writers/artists, city representatives, partners and human rights organisations from all over the world meet to assess and scrutinize the situation for freedom of expression and to explore new and imaginative ways of confronting repressive regimes and authorities where basic human rights are under attack.
ICORN writers and artists represent a rich resource for the entire network of cities. They bring new impulses to the cultural life of each city; they contribute to enhancing knowledge about different cultures in your city and enrich our debate, our insight and our understanding.
What does a city of refuge do?
A city of refuge protects and promotes the ICORN writers and artists. In signing the membership agreement with ICORN, your city agrees to:
- arrange for the relocation and reception of the writer/artist to the city;
- facilitate a legal status for the writer/artist;
- provide the writer/artist and his/her family with appropriate accommodation;
- provide the writer/artist with an appropriate scholarship/grant for his/her period of stay;
- help the writer/artist to integrate with the local community, both socially and artistically/professionally;
- appoint a City of Refuge coordinator to support the writer/artist in legal, practical and promotional matters throughout the residency.
How is a city of refuge managed?
This varies from city to city depending on the structural and financial configuration of the membership. Each city of refuge is managed in accordance with its own national and city laws, regulations, partnership agreements and cultural offers. The ICORN Administration Centre assists each member with practical and promotional matters.
In general, the municipality/city/region is responsible for the main part of the finances, with support from various sources and partners, private, public, local, national and trans-national, to take care of the practical running of the programme. Some cities of refuge have special agreements concerning both finance and organisation.
In Paris, the Municipality of Paris is the official ICORN host, partnered by, among others, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris Biblilothèques, Reporters Sans Frontières and Maison des Journalistes.
In Brussels, it is the international house of literature, Passaporta, that handles the daily running of the programme. They also have an agreement with four universities, which partly sponsor the ICORN writer/artist, provided he or she participates in lectures and workshops at these universities.
Both Barcelona and Girona cities of refuge are primarily financed by the city and coordinated by Catalan PEN.
In Scandinavia, a city of refuge is typically run by the public library and sometimes by social security or refugee organisations. Skien city of refuge, Norway, is managed in a partnership between the Municipality of Skien and the public library. Managing institutions/partners in Levanger in Norway is Levanger library, Levanger Cultural office and Levanger Refugee office, whereas the Municipality of Växjö, Sweden, is member of ICORN and the programme is managed by the culture and leisure services/The House for Free Speech.
You can visit the individual city pages to learn more about how these cities of refuge are managed.
What does it cost to be a member of ICORN?
The ICORN General Assembly, convened every other year, determines the membership fee. Both regions and cities can be members.
As of 2010, the annual ICORN membership fee for a city is € 2300. A region pays € 1800 for a membership, and each member city part of a member region pays an annual fee of € 1500.
What does it cost to run a city of refuge and who covers the expenses?
The cities of refuge are independently managed and financially self-sufficient. Who covers the cost of each programme varies a lot and depends on the individual city’s consortium of partners and standard agreements. The basic costs to hosting a writer/artist for a standard period of two years will cover:
- furnished residential accommodation for the writer/artist and his/her family;
- a scholarship/grant to the writer/artist for the period of their stay - the amount is agreed with the ICORN Administration Centre;
- all travel expenses concerning the journey of the writer and his/her family (from their country of residence to your city, and departure at the termination of the residency) - these expenses will include fees for passports and visas, etc.;
- the salary of a coordinator(s) who will work with the writer/artist (and his/her family) to facilitate integration and promotion within the host city;
- appropriate working and living conditions for the writer and his/her family during the stay;
- available health and residential insurances, for the writer and his/her family during the stay;
- access to services that will enable the writer to learn the language of the host country.
- the annual ICORN membership fee (see above).
How can the city provide the writer/artist with visa and residence permits?
When the city has made a decision and invited a writer/artist and the offer has been accepted, the process of gaining access to the territory begins - i.e. getting a visa or residency
permit for the guest (and family members, if relevant). The procedure depends on both the receiving country and the country that the writer/artist is leaving. ICORN will advise and guide the city through this process. You can also read the report by ICORN’s Programme Director, Elisabeth Dyvik - Providing residencies for persecuted writers and artists in Europe. This includes examples from previous experiences in different host cities.
How long is an ICORN residency?
A standard term for an ICORN residency is two years, unless otherwise agreed with the ICORN Administration Centre.
How do the writer/artist and the city work together?
The city designates a coordinator to work with the writer/artist and help them to integrate within your city and to support them in legal, practical, professional and promotional matters.
Writers and artists who apply to ICORN have very diverse backgrounds and expectations for the residency. This applies equally to the host cities. Close cooperation and dialogue between the coordinator and the guest about their needs, wishes and skills, is highly recommended.
The writer/artist should be included socially and professionally in relevant and mutually beneficial events in the city. The designated coordinator will help to facilitate these opportunities, while also exploring potential national and international networks and partnerships.
See also What does a city of refuge do?
How do ICORN writers and artists experience being hosted in a city of refuge?
This, of course, varies a lot and depends on many factors; e.g. their background, the relationship between the city and its guest, language, potential networks, audiences and social integration, and so on.
Above all, it is important to remember that though they are victims of persecution, they are also advocates of free speech. They are writers, artists, directors and free thinkers, being given a new opportunity to work and express themselves freely. Most ICORN residents will find inspiration to keep on working and participate in the activities of the city and the network. Many are also able to reach out to their own networks and audiences in their home countries, particularly through digital media.
Most writers and artists come from a background where their work is known and appreciated, or where they have a loyal network of people and platforms. In their cities of refuge, they often need to establish a new social life and career. They need to build other networks, to explore other professional, cultural and political arenas and to forge a new public. The language is often new and the cultural differences can create some frustrating experiences.
This is why a close relationship between the city coordinator and the writer/artist is vital, right from the beginning of the residency.
Some of our former ICORN writers/artists have written a few words about their expectations, set against the reality of their stay in a city of refuge. Please take some time to read them.
Basim Mardan (Iraq)
Najati Tayara (Syria)
Chenjerai Hove (Zimbabwe)
Who does ICORN work with?
ICORN cooperates with an increasing range of networks and institutions, at local, regional, national and international levels.
The ICORN Administration Centre works closely with PEN International. PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee evaluates the authenticity of authorship and artistic production as well as declared danger.
At the core of its identity, ICORN is both a literature/arts and a human rights/freedom of expression organisation.
Culturally, we interact with local initiatives in the member cities, national arts councils, and a wide range of international arts and literature festivals, etc.
In the field of human rights and free expression, we depend heavily on cooperation with PEN International, Article 19, Reporters without Borders, and many more. We also work closely with other networks engaged with both sectors,such as FreeDimensional, Scholars at Risk, Frontline Defenders, Freemuse, Arts, Rights & Justice, On the Move, Tactical tech and so on.
ICORN continues to develop these relationships with new and existing partners and supporters, to increase the capacity to protect and promote writers, artists and human rights defenders at risk around the world. Since 2010, ICORN has been involved with relevant programmes at the European Parliament and the European Commission and particularly, the EU’s determined initiative to set up a global system of shelter for human rights defenders.
How is ICORN financed?
As an independent non-profit membership organisation, ICORN is dependent on the support of trusts and foundations, public and private donors, and membership fees. The individual ICORN cities are independently managed and self-financed.
Our primary supporters are:
Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Sigrid Rausing Trust
ICORN cities (membership fees)
See Partner and supporters
How is ICORN governed?
The International Cities of Refuge Network is both decentralized and co-ordinated. The Administration Centre in Stavanger, Norway, serves as the communication hub for the independently managed ICORN cities. The international board consists of member city representatives, elected biannually by the General Assembly.
Please find information about the organisation on About ICORN.
How do cities and ICORN work together?
The city of refuge is responsible for all the practical and promotional matters regarding the residency, but ICORN assists throughout the process, from pre-residency to post-residency and the period of stay itself. ICORN also functions as the communication hub between the cities of refuge and the writers/artists in the network.
Please see the ICORN Membership Agreement for an outline of cooperation between the city and ICORN.
How does a writer/artist become an ICORN resident?
Please see the application procedure and evaluation process for writers/artists at risk.
Who and what decides which writer/artist my city will host?
The city selects the writer/artist, in agreement with ICORN, based on the ICORN Administration Centre’s proposal.
ICORN receives, assesses and approves applications from writers and artists. PEN International WiPC makes reference checks on literary/artistic production, and assesses the danger. When an applicant has been approved for an ICORN residency, ICORN tries to match city and writer/artist as suitably as possible, depending on the urgency of the case, capacity of the city, cultural profile, etc. ICORN then presents a list to the city and it is ultimately up to that city to invite its candidate.
How can my city become a city of refuge/member of ICORN?
By signing and committing to the ICORN Membership Agreement. Before committing to the membership agreement, your city needs to identify formal partners, establish finance and backing for the programme, find a coordinating institution and an accommodation for the writer/artist. Financing and running a city of refuge varies from city to city. You city's management model will depend on its national and city's own laws and regulations, partnerships, cultural offers and funding opportunities. ICORN will assist you in finding the best solution for your city.
ICORN encourages any city/person/organisation that wishes to join us to contact us to find out how to join us.
We are currently recruiting cities in South Africa and you can read about this process in a report on a tour of Cape Town. This will give you some idea of how cities work towards becoming ICORN members and how we work to encourage them to engage and commit.
Sometimes becoming a member city might take a few months, sometimes years. The important thing is that we get there in the end!
Please contact us for any questions or if you have a question we should add to this list.It is the ICORN General Assembly, held every two years, that determines the size of the membership fee.