From the written word to cultural expression

As the second country in the world which accepts the most guest writers, the Swedish Migration Agency has granted residence permits to over 20 guest writers who have been persecuted or threatened in their country of origin because of their work. It will now become even more evident through the Agency's practice that other independent professionals and cultural professionals, like musicians and visual artists, can be offered a safe haven upon the invitation of a Swedish municipality.

"To protect the right to voice and express opinions without censorship, restriction or some form of punishment encompasses many different elements. By accepting guest writers, Sweden strikes one important blow for freedom of speech and press, not least in light of the increased need for a safe haven among the world's writers", says Fredrik Martinsson, expert at the Swedish Migration Agency.

Since 2010, the number of writers applying for inclusion in the refuge network ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, has increased by close to 60 per cent while at the same time, the number of municipalities offering a safe haven has not increased at a corresponding rate. The network accepted approximately 70 applications last year, the large majority of which came from Syrians. Annually, between 15 and 20 people can be offered a safe haven in one of the 15 countries which currently accept guest writers.

"Getting more cities to offer a safe haven is a big challenge for ICORN. We are therefore very pleased by the recent developments in terms of Sweden's reception of guest writers. Primarily because of the rapid increase in the number of Swedish cities and counties offering a safe haven, but also because of the manner in which the Swedish Migration Agency and the Swedish Arts Council, as well as non-governmental organisations like the Swedish centre of PEN, work together with the cities and ICORN to make it all possible", says Helge Lunde, the Executive Director of ICORN.

During the last two years, when the increase in international guest writers has been the greatest, Sweden has increased its reception as more cities have joined ICORN. With eight cities receiving guest writers today, and three more on their way, Sweden ranks second after Norway, both in terms of the number of accepted writers and the number of cities offering a safe haven.

"The Swedish model for reception of guest writers is also exemplary. In the other countries, with the exception of Norway, there is no comparable practice or strategy for the reception of guest writers. The cities of refuge essentially operate individually with the country's immigration agencies in each separate case to find solutions for how the new writer will be able to stay for a period of one or two years", says Helge Lunde.

The possibility of a permanent resident permit

Since 2011, when the Swedish Migration Agency took a judicial position regarding residence permits for guest writers, the provisions of the Aliens Act concerning independent professionals have been applied. A two-year residence permit is granted on the condition that a guest writer is invited by a municipality and that their livelihood is secured for a corresponding period by means other than employment.

"In 2012, for the first time, a permanent residence permit was granted to a guest writer in accordance with Swedish Migration Agency practice after 2011. Before this, writers could not utilise the time they had spent in Sweden because their residence permits had previously been granted on the basis of visitation", says Fredrik Martinsson, expert at the Swedish Migration Agency.

In order to receive a permanent residence permit, the guest writer is required to demonstrate that their livelihood can be sustained as an independent professional even after the two-year residence permit and scholarship period have expired. In that case, this time can be used as a basis for permanent residence, in accordance with the principle of deferral of immigrant status.

The place of speech in society

According to the organisation PEN, there are approximately 1,000 known professional writers around the world who currently live under threat for having exercised their fundamental right to freedom of speech and press.

"As an international organisation for writers, we are particularly concerned about the place of literature and the written word in society. Through writers and journalists, among others, space is created for many people to find out what is happening in their society. With that need in mind, it is important that more municipalities in Sweden and in the world work towards greater reception of both guest writers and other individuals who risk persecution because of their writing profession", says Ola Larsmo, Chairman of the Swedish PEN Centre.

Expanded guest writer movement movement

In the traditional sense, guest writers mean writers of fiction, poetry, children's books and textbooks, but also script writers, translators, editors, journalists, bloggers and cartoonists. In Sweden and the Nordic countries, a movement is underway to broaden the guest writer movement to include other artistic professions such as music, visual artists and film-makers who are also subject to censorship and repression.

"In March 2013, Sweden received a rap musician for the first time, upon the invitation of the city of Göteborg. The Swedish Migration Agency has, as far as practice is concerned, granted a residence permit to an independent professional in an artistic field other than the written word.  In order to clearly indicate who can be included in the expanded guest writer movement, the Migration Agency will review and adjust their judicial position on the issue", says Fredrik Martinsson, expert at the Swedish Migration Agency.

The starting point for the Swedish Migration Agency's continued work with this issue is primarily the legislative preparatory work for the provisions of the Aliens Act regarding the grounds for residence permits for guest writers. 

"For the Swedish Arts Council, the issue of artistic freedom of expression and speech is central. There are visual artists and musicians, in Iran for example, who are imprisoned and do not have the ability to express their music. It is natural to also take those artists into consideration, as well as their need to express themselves. We welcome therefore the initiative of the Swedish Migration Agency to review this field", says Kerstin Brunnberg, Chairman of the board of the Swedish Arts Council.

Since 2013 and at the request of the Government, the Swedish Arts Council has worked to broaden the asylum movement to include other artistic forms and vulnerable cultural professionals.


  • World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1993. 3 May is the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek which advocates an independent and pluralistic press. The Declaration was approved in 1991, in Windhoek, Namibia.
  • The Swedish Arts Council is the one governmental agency in Sweden which has the comprehensive responsibility to manage issues related to the cities of refuge. The Agency works to increase the ability of the invited artists to become part of the Swedish artistic community, and collaborates with a number of other agencies and interest groups to raise awareness about oppression and censorship against cultural professionals in various parts of the world, as well as the need for cities of refuge.
  • A guest writer can apply for a residence permit with the Swedish Migration Agency but is not guaranteed asylum simply by virtue of being a guest writer – the grounds for protection must be assessed in the usual manner, in accordance with the provisions in Chapter 4 of the Aliens Act. Of the countries that receive guest writers, only Norway assesses and grants residence permits on the grounds of protection within the framework of their national refugee quota. 
  • A guest writer in Sweden can apply for a work permit if the individual has secured employment alongside their authorship.
  • In 1996, Göteborg received Sweden's first guest writer. Since then, 23 guest writers have been received by eight cities. In neighbouring Norway, twelve cities are currently receiving guest writers.


  • Between 2010 and 2013, almost 30 per cent of the 56 guest writers who were received by one of the approximately 40 cities of reception affiliated with ICORN came from Iran. Among the number of writers who apply to become guest writers affiliated with ICORN, Iran has also historically been heavily represented, with the exception of 2010 when Iraq represented a majority and in 2013, when Syria represented approximately 30 per cent of all applications. Until now, this year has seen a record-high number of applications received by ICORN, largely from Syrian writers. 
  • Between 2011 and 2013 the following professions were most common among the applications received by ICORN: writers (approximately 37 per cent), journalists (approximately 29 per cent), poets (approximately 11 per cent), and bloggers (approximately 6 per cent).

Last updated: 2015-05-04

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