Celebrating Human Rights Day 2015

In the lead up to Human Rights Day (December 10) we’ve made a selection of articles, Op-Eds and interviews on the refugee crisis and with writers in exile to highlight the plight of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe and beyond as well as the experiences of writers who have been forced into exile. 

Human Rights Day – PEN demands greater protection for refugees 

hungary111As PEN Centres around the world today mark Human Rights Day we celebrate our long tradition of giving protection for writers at risk and urge the international community to uphold their humanitarian and legal obligations to protect people facing persecution. 2015 has been marked by one of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Compelled by persecution and war, over 900,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of sanctuary. Over 3,500 have died making this journey. Read more here.

Writing in Exile: “Home” is My Mailing Address | Abraham Tesfalul Zere 

Abraham Tesfalul Zere is an exiled Eritrean writer and journalist  who was one of the founding members  of PEN Eritrea.

When I was reading the life history and works of famous exiled writers such as James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the poets like Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Abdellatif Laâbi, and others I used to think maybe exile could have turned me into a better writer. Of course later I was forced to leave my country. From my short experience, I am learning that being in “exile” is neither exotic nor a source of inspiration for good writing, as I used to imagine. Rather, it is a state of perpetual limbo punctuated by solitary walks, the sense of loss, and being haunted by unsuccessful attempts to write. Read the full article here.

The Case of Kurdish-Iranian Journalist Behrouz Boochani 


PEN International is deeply concerned by the detention of Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who has been held in Australia’s offshore Immigration Detention Centre on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea for the past two years. He has sought asylum is Australia since July 2013. On 17 February 2013, officials from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps ransacked the Varia offices in Ilam and arrested 11 of his colleagues. Several were subsequently imprisoned. Mr Boochani was in Tehran that day and so avoided arrest. On hearing of the arrests, he published the information on the website Iranian Reporters, and his report was widely circulated. Mr Boochani feared for his safety and went into hiding eventually deciding to flee Iran on 23 May 2013.

Notes from an exiled researcher | Ghirmai Negash

gI moved from Eritrea to the United Sates in 2005, to work in a department of literature in an American university. I had moved to Eritrea from the Netherlands in 2001, on invitation by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the then operative University of Asmara, to set up a department of Eritrean languages and literature. When in 2008 my case was considered for an “early tenure” in my new department in America, I was asked by the department chair to write about the nature and significance of my scholarship, to be included in the tenure file in behalf of the candidate’s narrative. In preparation, I read a few exemplary statements by colleagues, who successfully went through the often complex process of tenure, and was most impressed by their endurance and achievement; but, more importantly, I was also envious and somewhat overwhelmed by the steady purpose and scholarly focus of my colleagues, especially the ones whose narratives exuded confidence and continuity. What was my narrative? Rather than by stability and continuity, my own life and work were, and continue to be, more characterized by geographical dislocation and cultural rupture, so I started my story for the tenure process with the following ellipsis by Edward Said. Read in full here. 

The Europe I Dream of | Josef Haslinger

turkey2 The Europe I dream of was the contribution of Josef Haslinger to the Euromagreb Meeting of Writers gathering in Sidi Bou Saïd from 16th to 20th October, invited by the EU Embassy in Tunisia. "... The Europe I dream of would return to the point reached in 1990, when a fresh start was made and for a few months peaceful co-operation between the major powers appeared possible. The Europe I dream of would show it deserved the Nobel Prize it won three years ago for its contribution to peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights by turning its face towards the world instead of curling up and showing its spikes." Read the full article here.

Refugees and Writers: Conversations in the Calais ‘Jungle’

main2To mark Human Rights Day, English PEN's Dr. Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes have dedicated a PEN Atlas to the Refugee Crisis with a special dispatch from Calais, where they worked with refugees living there to create a new short story collection. breach will be published by Peirene Press in August 2016. Read the full PEN Atlas here. 


In Conversation with Ethiopian Writers in Exile

Dadaab refugee camp

Africa is estimated to be home to some three million refugees.  As a select group of nations are overburdened, how do the refugees residing there fare? Emma Wadsworth-Jones from PEN International spoke to Betre Yacob Getahun and Zerihun Mulugeta, two Ethiopian journalists living as refugees in Kenya, to get a first-hand perspective of what forced these writers to flee their countries and of their lives as writers in exile. Read the interview here. 

Celebrating Sanctuary: Exiled Voices Speak Out 


On Refugee Day 2014, PEN International spoke to Sahar Bayati about her about her experiences of fleeing persecution and of living as a writer in exile.

Tell me about your experience of being arrested and sentenced to a 3-year prison term.

I don’t think I was brave, I didn’t feel it – I was scared. The situation suddenly becomes so dark, you can’t imagine your future. You wonder what will happen to you? You can’t imagine it. You think back over your articles – what was it that I wrote? Will I be able to answer their questions? It’s really frightening. You can’t help thinking about the friends and colleagues who have gone before you and sentenced to 10, 12, 15 years in prison. You can’t help but wonder if that will be your fate too. I was scared. Read the full interview here.

Join PEN's Call for Greater Protection of Refugees in Europe


Europe should come to the aid of people in desperate straits and provide them with routes of escape. People who are in immediate danger should be able to establish direct contact with the embassies of European nations in their country of origin, so that they can apply for humanitarian visas. Refugees should no longer have to risk their lives to come to Europe. If they do seek asylum, they should not be treated like criminals. Sign PEN's petition here.

The Refugee Crisis

EuropeThe international community is currently experiencing the single largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. According to the UNHCR, at least 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2014 – be that internally or seeking refuge abroad – due to conflict, crises or persecution.

PEN International and its partners have seen a corresponding rise in requests for assistance from writers in exile or seeking to leave their countries. Such assistance can vary from short-term grants – provided through the Foundation PEN Emergency Fund – support to asylum claims, or for relocation through placements provided by our Centres or the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Over a quarter of these requests for assistance come from writers in the Middle East.

In 2014, more than half of all refugees worldwide came from just three countries: Syria (3.88 million),  Afghanistan (2.59 million) and Somalia (1.11 million). Writers are amongst the hundreds of thousands to have suffered appalling persecution and trauma in Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011, and are continuing to flee the conflict in large numbers. In 2014, over 25% of a total 14.4 million refugees globally were Syrian. Many are languishing without status and in severe economic hardship and insecurity in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey.

As individuals flee their homes, they seek refuge in neighbouring countries that, due to a lack of solidarity and support among the international community, are now at breaking point. Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Kenya are among the top 10 countries hosting the most refugees. According to the UNHCR, by the end 2014 this same top 10 accommodated 57 per cent of all individual refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate, with eight of these witnessing at times dramatic increases in their respective refugee figures during the year. Almost all of the top 40 host countries for refugees in 2013 were developing countries.

2014 witnessed a shift in the patterns of the main host countries of refugees and their source, according to the latest data. This change has largely been influenced by the conflict in Syria and large-scale displacement across parts of Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East have shared the burden in almost equal portions.

Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to be home to some 3.7 million refugees (26% of the world’s refugee population) – the highest level observed since 1996. By the end of 2014, Ethiopia – with 659,500 registered refugees, the majority from neighbouring South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia – had taken over from Kenya as the host of the largest refugee population in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Over one quarter of the world’s refugee population (3.8 million) also resided in the Asia and Pacific region by the end of December 2014. Of these, over 2.5 million were Afghans residing in Pakistan or Iran.

Last year, Europe was host to some 3.1 million refugees (22% of the total population) – the majority Syrian – with Turkey assuming over half of the burden (some 1.6 million refugees).

The Middle East and North Africa region hosted a similar proportion of the world’s refugees (approximately 3 million refugees), again mainly from Syria (2.2 million). By the end of 2014, Lebanon was host to some 1.15 million refugees – equating to approximately 232 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants – stretching the country’s socio-economic absorption capacity to its limit.

Finally, with 769,000 refugees, the Americas is the only region to have experienced a decrease in its refugee population, hosting the smallest share (5%) of refugees globally; Colombians continue to constitute the largest proportion of refugees in the region.

With the number of refugees increasing year upon year, an even worse picture can only be expected when the final figures for 2015 are released.