A Swiss haven for persecuted writers

Chenjerai Hove – poet, novelist, militant for human rights – was exiled from Zimbabwe in 2001. He participated in the founding of ICORN. (Photo courtesy of German-speaking Switzerland’s PEN writers’ group) Deutschweizer Pen Zentrum

Many of the world’s cities welcome writers who are persecuted for their opinions. Despite its humanitarian background, Switzerland has yet to offer support. But a new safe haven project is in the works.

This content was published on June 10, 2014 - 17:00
Ariane Gigon,

Naeimeh Doostdar Sanaye was in Kuala Lumpur with her baby and her husband when she got the news: her request for refuge had been accepted and the city of Malmö had invited her and her family to move to Sweden.

Currently, no Swiss city can offer what Malmö offered the Iranian writer. Switzerland is not a member of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which offers refuge to writers in 44 cities around the world, ranging from Tromsø in Norway to Miami, Mexico City, Tuscany and Paris.

For Adi Blum, musician, author, and director of German-speaking Switzerland’s PEN writers’ group, that lack can’t be justified.

“Switzerland is proud of its humanitarian tradition,” Blum said. “But despite its wealth, the country doesn’t participate in ICORN. It’s clear we need to do something about that.”

Proposal in Solothurn

“We” is a trio formed by Blum and two novelists, Melinda Nadj Abonji and Ulrike Ulrich. At the end of 2013 they started a crowdfunding campaign online.

“We raised more than CHF6,000 ($6,700) in 40 days,” Blum says, pleased with the result. “That proved our project generated a lot of interest.”

The Swiss Association of Authors also supported the idea to encourage Switzerland’s participation in ICORN.

The project was to be unveiled at the recent Solothurn Literary Days. PEN invited the writer Chenjerai Hove, who was able to flee Zimbabwe thanks to the ICORN programme.

A plan containing a budget has been sent to several cities and foundations in Switzerland, requesting their participation. Zurich declined, arguing that its programme for writers in residence partially addressed the needs of persecuted writers. Bern also runs a similar programme.

But the city of Lucerne reacted favourably, says Blum. When contacted, the city’s culture office did not comment because a final decision has not been made. The funding may ultimately be made available by a cultural foundation.

For participating cities, it’s not just about joining ICORN – which costs €1,500 ($2,000) per year – or finding a place to live for the writers.

“You have to accompany the person in their daily life, help them with their contact with the authorities, know the Swiss literary culture, organise lectures, discussions and meetings and put them in contact with other cities of refuge. A part-time position would be required to coordinate all these tasks,” Blum explains. For the first year, the budget could amount to some CHF136,000.

Eventful history

Numerous articles online report the birth of the first International Parliament of Writers (PIE) on November 7, 1993, live on the French/German television network Arte. The purpose of the new body was to create a network of shelters in cities for threatened authors.

The idea was proposed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who was invited along with authors Toni Morrison, Jacques Derrida, Salman Rushdie and others to attend. Rushdie, who went on to become the first president of PIE, had been accused of blasphemy on February 14, 1989, by Iranian ruler Ayatollah Khomeini, who demanded Rushdie’s execution for his book The Satanic Verses.

Participation by 30 European cities was announced in 1998, among them Bern and Lausanne. Peter Schranz, of the city of Bern’s cultural department, recalls that doubts about the quality of the organisation became stronger and stronger over the years.

“The second author who was referred to us was not persecuted in his country,” Schranz said. “When the organization, which was based in Brussels at the time, asked us to pay so that it could make a central distribution, we pulled out of the programme.”

The International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) was born in 2006 out of the ashes of the first network, which was dissolved in 2005. It had to – and still has to – convince people of its professionalism and to erase the previous bad experiences.

Today, ICORN counts 44 cities of refuge, located throughout the world, but primarily in Europe. Writer Russel Banks is dedicated to the development of the network in North America, which currently counts only one city, Miami. Until now, 81 authors have profited from or are currently profiting from stays in cities of refuge.

End of insertion

Lessons from a first attempt

Like ICORN, PEN wants to avoid the mistakes made in a first attempt at a refuge cities project. Founded in the aftermath of the Fatwa issued in 1994 against the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, the programme was poorly organised, and only lasted a dozen years. Bern took in two authors before quitting the programme, while Lausanne took one.

Born out of the ashes of that first try, ICORN completely professionalised the organisation of writers’ refuge. Fugitive writers are chosen in consultation with PEN International’s committee of writers in prison, which keeps a list of persecuted authors (currently including more than 800 names).

Collaboration with the member cities is governed by a contract. The network’s headquarters supports the city in its efforts, but it’s up to the latter to take care of issues like residence permits, insurance or funding.


The standard stay for a writer is two years.

“People who have been traumatised need time,” says Helge Lund, the director of ICORN. “One year goes by quickly.”

Growing need

Every year, ICORN receives more and more requests.

“The number went up from 40 to 70 in 2013,” Lunde says. “We need more cities! But it’s the quality that counts, not the quantity. The cities have to be well prepared.”

What do the writers do when their stay has come to an end? Lunde says it varies.

“Some return to their countries, others obtain a residence permit or move somewhere else. For the others, we look for solutions within our network. But there are many problems that crop up, because the issues tied to getting visas are not lessening.”

Decision time in Geneva

Lunde has already been to Geneva, where a writer’s refuge project was launched several years ago.

“It’s very important for us that the city of Rousseau becomes a member of our network,” he says. There, in the childhood home of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, persecuted writers will soon be able to find refuge.

Now known as the “House of Rousseau and literature”, or MRL (after the French Maison de Rousseau et de la Littérature), the institution plans to expand. “We expect the two top floors will be dedicated to residences, especially for writers in exile,” explains Isabelle Ferrari, who runs the ICORN project for MRL.

She agrees that it’s very important for Geneva to formally commit to the project by joining the ICORN network. “It’s not enough to just make an apartment available to a writer. You have to affirm, publicly, in the framework of an international organisation, Geneva’s willingness to be true to its tradition of welcoming and providing refuge.”

Ferrrari doesn’t hide the group’s intentions. “We hope that in 2015, Geneva will become the first Swiss city to join ICORN, which will open up important collaborations with more than 60 cities around the world and will give our initiatives an international quality.”

Her hopes could become reality. Sami Kanaan, who became Geneva’s mayor on June 1, confirms the desire to present a formal proposal to join ICORN before the end of 2014, with research into external funding sources to balance the budget.

“It would be absurd if the city of human rights did not participate in this initiative,” he says.

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