Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni, author of the blog A Tunisian Girl, gives the keynote address at Safe Havens 2015, noting youth concerns with the attempted roll-back of the Tunisian Revolution by reactionary forces.
Michael Schmidt, Convenor, Southern African Cities of Refuge Project
With repeated failures by UN peace-keeping missions to protect refugees, Africa has probably done better by its animals than by its people – so I was intrigued when introduced in 2012 to the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), which provides refuge for persecuted writers, artists and activists. ICORN wanted to expand its network of cities into the developing world. The desire to do so was partly to prevent ICORN becoming another “West saves the Rest” initiative, as well as to reduce the culture shock experienced by displaced people. For example, when Kenyan poet Philo Ikonya was relocated to Norway by ICORN, her teenage son had to learn Norwegian to complete his schooling; he could have studied in English were they relocated to South Africa.
Back in 2012, ICORN’s sole city outside Western Europe was Mexico City. Since then it has expanded to include – apart from new cities in North America – Oaxaca in Mexico and Belo Horizonte in Brazil, with more being negotiated elsewhere. In Southern Africa, we are targeting the cities of Windhoek in Namibia, plus Cape Town, Johannesburg and the university town of Stellenbosch in South Africa, to bring them on board as ICORN cities. The project was founded under the aegis of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism of which I was then Executive Director. After moving to freelance work in 2015, I relocated project oversight to the Professional Journalists’ Association, and PEN’s South African chapter has since partnered with us.
Progress has been steady but slow, as working with universities and municipalities can be bureaucratic. However, the project held launches in Johannesburg in May and in Cape Town in July 2014 to introduce academics and city officials to the Cities of Refuge concept; films relevant to the exiled creative experience were screened – Beate Arnestad’s Silenced Voices on Sri Lankan journalists and Marion Stalens’ Silence or Exile on ICORN guest writers. Because most exiled creatives – whether choreographers, film directors, poets, journalists or painters – want to continue doing what got them into trouble in their home countries, the project requires the assistance of third parties to give them that platform. So we have engaged the Universities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch to explore possibilities – and have also established relations with the Holocaust and Genocide Centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town because of our mutual interest in interrogating issues of migration and prejudice.
So far, the most progress has been made in Cape Town where, initially, the fact that the city is run by the opposition Democratic Alliance assured that its decisions in this regard would not be aligned to national politics and foreign policy concerns (this is why ICORN works at city and not national level). We conducted an ICORN tour of Cape Town in May 2015, bringing guest writers Parvin Ardalan, an Iranian journalist, and Ramy Essam, an Egyptian musician, to meet officials, academics, and activists, and were tentatively offered a defunct museum in a converted suburban house as a possible ICORN residence. A bilateral agreement signed in 2016 between the mayors of Cape Town and Malmö in Sweden, a City of Refuge, will now be used to drive that project to signature and activation – hopefully in 2018.
Stellenbosch has proven slower. The original mayor who we met with in 2015 has been replaced, but the local university’s journalism department is interested in the project. Johannesburg was revived in 2017 by a range of discussions on possible venues that incorporate theatres, dance studios, computer rooms, exhibition spaces, and residential apartments. There, our project coincides with a similar initiative by the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders’ Network (PAHARDN) which aims at establishing Safe Hubs for persecuted human rights defenders in: Johannesburg, because of its cosmopolitanism; Kampala, Uganda, because of it successfully absorbed Somali and Burundian refugees; Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, because of a new law explicitly providing for such safe haven, and; Tunis in Tunisia, because of its new democratic dispensation; the initiative was launched in October 2017 with ICORN participation: here .
In June 2016, we relocated a Zimbabwean human rights defender in exile in South Africa to Windhoek, Namibia, who was seriously at risk of assassination by state agents. Two of his colleagues had already been murdered and one narrowly survived a poisoning. Relocation funds were provided by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). It was an operation fraught with danger that almost failed twice and resulted in the defender eventually returning to South Africa. But it taught us valuable lessons about such relocations which we shared at a conference with PAHRDN in August 2016. We have since, in 2017, successfully relocated a persecuted poet and blogger from Lesotho to South Africa, and are involved in monitoring the status of several other at-risk creatives. Our hope is that 2018 will finally see the project mature with Cape Town and perhaps Johannesburg signing on as ICORN cities.