Prague to become city of refuge for persecuted artists and writers

Helge Lunde and Bohuslav Svoboda

The Czech capital is set to become a so-called city of refuge. The City of Prague has signed a contract with the Norwegian non-profit organisation ICORN, joining a network of more than 80 cities around the world that provide temporary asylum to writers or artists persecuted in their home countries.

Helge Lunde | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

The idea to establish a network of cities that would provide refuge to persecuted artists, writers and journalists originated back in the 1990s. The people behind the original concept, called International Parliament of Writers, included Salman Rushdie, but also the late Czech president and playwright Václav Havel.

Since 2006, the job was taken over by the Norwegian non-profit organisation ICORN. On Tuesday, Prague has become the 86th city to join the network. The signing of the agreement was also attended by ICORN director general Helge Lunde:

“Since we started in 2006 we have protected more than 300 persecuted writers and artists, who can be everything from novelists, poets, journalists, but also cartoonists and lately also non-verbal artists.

“It’s all about freedom of expression so we're speaking about people who are not able to express themselves freely in their home country due to their professional activities and it's up to the cities of ICORN to step up and help them.”

Helge Lunde and Bohuslav Svoboda | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

ICORN is a city-driven network, which means each of the member cities is responsible for covering the cost of housing and living for the artists in question and also help them with social integration.

The City of Prague has so far pledged to receive one artist, who is expected to arrive by the end of the year and who will be selected from a list of candidates submitted by ICORN. Given the current political situation, the person could come virtually from any part of the world, says Mr. Lunde:

“At the moment, the world is not a very easy place to be for people with free minds. It can be countries in the Middle East, such as Yemen, Syria, of course Palestine, if we are able to get people out of there.

“And then of course Iran, Iraq, but also many African countries, Latin America, but even countries in Europe, namely Belarus and Russia. There are many countries where writers and artists have really big troubles if they want to speak exactly what is on their mind.”

Helge Lunde and Bohuslav Svoboda | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

Mr. Lunde says almost half of the persecuted writers and artists applying for protection to ICORN have already fled their home countries and are staying in a transit country.

“There are lots of people in Turkey, for instance, who fled there from Afghanistan, Iran and other countries. We say ICORN is a long-term, temporary system of protection. And of course it’s a big question what happens afterwards.

“This is one of the most important things that we as ICORN are assisting with. But in the very end, it is the artist who is the chief of his or her life. They are making the decision, but it is up to the city and to the ICORN organization to assist as much as possible.”