The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) is an independent organisation of cities and regions offering shelter to writers and artists at risk, advancing freedom of expression, defending democratic values and promoting international solidarity.
Writers and artists are especially vulnerable to censorship, harassment, imprisonment and even death, because of what they do. They represent the liberating gift of the human imagination and give voice to thoughts, ideas, debate and critique, disseminated to a wide audience. They also tend to be the first to speak out and resist when free speech is threatened.
ICORN member cities offer long term, but temporary, shelter to those at risk as a direct consequence of their creative activities. Our aim is to be able to host as many persecuted writers and artists as possible in ICORN cities and together with our sister networks and organisations, to form a dynamic and sustainable global network for freedom of expression.
Protecting and promoting writers and artists at risk
Since 2006, more than 70 cities around the globe have joined the network, and no less than 200 writers and artists have found shelter in an ICORN member city. The commitment by these cities is both very concrete and deeply symbolic: the agent for change (the writer/artist) escapes from imminent threat and persecution; the host city offers sanctuary; and the values of hospitality, solidarity and freedom of expression become further enshrined in the ethos of that city.
ICORN protects and promotes an increasingly wide range of writers, artists and human rights defenders, including bloggers, novelists, playwrights, journalists, musicians, poets, non-fiction writers, visual artists, cartoonists, singer/songwriters, translators, screenwriters and publishers. ICORN enables them to continue to express themselves freely in a place where they are safe, but not silent. Through digital media, they can reach audiences to whom they were denied access before leaving. And through local and ICORN networks, their voices can also be heard by new audiences in their host cities and beyond.
The original Cities of Asylum Network (INCA) was founded in 1993 by the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) in response to the assassination of writers in Algeria. Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka and Vaclav Havel were presidents and council members included JM Coetzee, Jaques Derrida, Margaret Drabble and Harold Pinter. The idea to create a network of cities to shelter threatened writers was first embraced by Barcelona and quickly followed by many others, including the United States and Mexico. The IPW was dissolved in 2005, but the scheme was left intact.
For all the cities and organisations involved, a question remained: does the collapse of the IPW mean that any organised work of this kind is in vain? Or should we join forces, learn from the failures and successes of the past, and start anew? The latter alternative was chosen and the ICORN Secretariat was established in Stavanger in June 2006 at the Stavanger Cultural Center, Sølvberget.
In 2010, ICORN became an independent membership organisation and in 2014 the ICORN general assembly voted to expand the scope of writers and offer residencies for artists and musicians.
Partners and cooperation
ICORN is a dynamic, flexible and collaborative organization. It connects member cities and writers/artists within a global network of solidarity, creativity and mutual interaction. A truly interdependent undertaking, ICORN cooperates with an increasing range of networks and institutions at local, regional, national and international levels.
The ICORN Secretariat works closely with PEN International and its Writers in Prison Committee, which 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 internationally with a wide range of arts and literature festivals, residency networks and so on. In the field of human rights and freedom of expression, we depend heavily on cooperation with PEN International, Article 19, Reporters without Borders, and many more. We also interact closely with other networks active in both sectors, such as Free Dimensional, Scholars at Risk, Frontline Defenders, Freemuse, Arts, Rights & Justice, On the Move, Tactical tech, and more.
ICORN continues to develop relationships with existing and new partners and supporters, to increase capacity to protect and promote writers, artists and campaigners at risk around the world. Since 2010, ICORN has been involved with relevant projects at the European Parliament and the European Commission and particularly with the EU’s determined initiative to set up a global system of shelter for those who defend human rights.
The International Cities of Refuge Network is both decentralized and co-ordinated. The Secretariat 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.
The ICORN Board
The ICORN Board is elected by the member cities and consists of representatives from six cities from different nationalities across the network to represent and advocate the views of ICORN.
A representative of PEN International and Sølvberget Cultural Centre may attend ICORN board meetings with the right to speak and suggest agenda items. One representative of the writers/artists who are, or have been, guests in an ICORN city of refuge may also attend board meetings with the right to speak and suggest agenda items.
The present ICORN Board, elected in 2021, consists of:
Chris Gribble (Norwich; Chair) Annika Strömberg (Uppsala; Vice Chair) Robert Piaskowski (Krakow; Board Member) Henry Reese (Pittsburgh; Board Member) Henry Andersen (Harstad; Board Member) Sabine Gimbere (Amsterdam; Board Member)
The Secretariat handles the day-to-day running of the organisation. It receives and screens applications from writers and artists. It verifies the danger and authenticates their work. It establishes contact between applicants and cities of refuge and guides and advises both parties throughout the whole process. The Centre also facilitates contact and co-operation between member cities, city co-ordinators, promotional arenas and writers/artists. It continuously strives to recruit more cities and to extend the network of organisations that can assist in the various stages of an application.
Neither ICORN nor its individual cities have authority over the laws and regulations of any country. Therefore, the Administration Centre strongly discourages any applicants and candidates from relying on ICORN as their only option for refuge.
"We survive under great difficulties. And sometimes we do not survive."
In the wake of the Iranian fatwa on Salman Rushdie and a growing pressure on writers’ freedom of expression, including attacks and assassinations, Rushdie and fellow writers set up the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) and engaged cities to give writers safe spaces to continue working. 25 cities joined in a network that dissolved in 2005.
Key representatives from some of the engaged cities, as well as from Norwegian PEN and PEN International, meet to set up a sustainable network to continue the work to protect and promote persecuted writers.
ICORN is formally founded at an official meeting in Stavanger, with representatives from 15 cities, to ensure a new and secure network structure. The ICORN Secretariat is established as a project with support from the City of Stavanger. PEN International and ICORN sign an official cooperation agreement.
As the network grows, ICORN consolidates and becomes an independent membership organisation. New agreements with PEN International and Stavanger Cultural Centre are signed at the official launch of the new organisation in London.
ICORN widens its scope and opens up residencies for visual artists and musicians. The decision is made by the General Assembly meeting in Ljubljana.
ICORN celebrates its 10 years anniversary in Hôtel de Ville in Paris with more than 200 participants, among them 50 writers and artists at risk.
A new strategic plan is adopted at the General Assembly in Malmö May 2018, emphasising ICORN’s role in improving the conditions for freedom of expression world wide.
Since 2006 more than 70 cities have joined the network and more than 200 writer and artists have found refuge in an ICORN city.