Open Borders and Derrida’s “Cities of Refuge”

Might the late French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida serve as the prophet of open borders, as another impenetrably arcane Continental philosopher, Immanuel Kant, served as the prophet of the democratic peace? It seems that he advocated roughly my idea of passport-free charter cities, in articles entitled “Hospitality” (gated) and “On Cosmopolitanism” (part of a Google eBook). Derrida is the kind of French philosopher for whom vagueness seems to be a virtue. Not really my type. I read him as an undergraduate and struggled to understand him. One article entitled “Late Derrida: The Politics of Sovereignty” (Vincent B. Leitch, 2007) (available on JSTOR and Scribd) summarizes his career thus:

During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Jacques Derrida published numerous books, approximately two dozen in French, virtually all translated into English,  but in the 1990s and thereafter up to 2004, the year of his death and  the year in which I am writing, he brought out roughly three dozen more books in France, not including the revised editions of earlier works, coauthored works, and introductions to books. In this period, which I here label late Derrida, about two dozen books by Derrida appeared in English translation, without counting three substantial Derrida readers. Not surprisingly, recent introductions to Derrida have found it especially challenging to systematize this sprawling corpus. The preferred approach is to foreground key Derridean concepts (so-called undecidables or quasitranscendentals) such as the early standbys—difference, iterability, margin,  supplement, text—and later ones like gift, hospitability, forgiveness, democracy to come, justice, messianic, responsibility, spectrality.

Hmm.  Perhaps one shouldn’t expect to understand much about the thought of any moderately subtle thinker from 35,000 feet like that (I was delightfully impressed that Vipul Naik managed to summarize parts of Principles of a Free Society accurately and succinctly; I’m not sure I could!) but Derrida doesn’t get easier close up. But in Sean Kelly’s article “Derrida’s Cities of Refuge: Toward a Non-Utopian Utopia,” (gated) the idea of charter cities seems relatively clear:

Jacques Derrida has become one of the leading voices in the project for thinking about a politics of the future, what he has called a democracy to come. What could that mean: a democracy to come? To whom, to where will it arrive? What this paper intends to accomplish is to outline one of the institutions in which Derrida finds the promise of this politics: the cities of refuge. The cities of refuge. This phrase immediately rings utopian. A city of refuge, a place where even the unforgivable is forgiven, sounds too attractive in this world where crimes against humanity crowd in upon one, and even one’s own home cannot safeguard against incrimination. Cities of refuge simply sounds too utopian. But toward the close of the 20th century, the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) activated this phrase in an historical institution, the Network of Cities of Asylum, designed to defend the lives of writers from totalitarian or terrorist threats. In this network, this non-utopian, no longer no-place, strategy, Derrida finds an institution through which he might articulate his vision for a democracy to come.

Kelly also describes efforts to establish an archipelago of such cities of refuge, dedicated specifically to the protection of writers:

[In 1993,] over 300 writers signed a petition that crystallized the formative structure of what would later become the IPW. In November of the same year, these writers met in Strasbourg for the organization’s formal inauguration (, 2003a). According to the European Charter of Cities of Asylum, this group “reaffirmed the need for an international structure” that was capable of “developing genuine solidarity between writers whose work and lives were increasingly being put in danger” (Congress of Regional and Local Authorities of Europe, 1995).

As of the writing of this article, cities in Europe, North America, and Africa have  joined the Network (, 2003b). Each city is chartered to provide physical, financial, and social stability for the authors whom they protect. The cities represent real spaces of security and are designated as institutions that will willingly mobilize  their varied public and private authorities to protect and negotiate on behalf of their adopted writers. The expectation is that the cities will each work to secure the proper papers for the authors, utilize security forces to maintain the writers’ well-being, and collaborate with “local authorities and other public authorities, both within the individual countries and beyond national borders” (Congress, 1995). The Network is meant to act as an archipelago rather than unified body. This sanctions each city to act in response to the singularity of a particular writer’s case, while maintaining an infrastructure of solidarity for the cause. The now-global nature of the cities ensures that both the cosmopolitan spirit of the Network and its ability to remain locally responsive can be maintained (, 2003c; Congress, 1995; Rushdie, 2000). It is exactly this spirit of the Network with which this particular article is most concerned. In spirit, it is necessary for the cities to have, in some sense, declared independence from the state of the globe as defined specifically in terms of national governmental sovereignties.

I would ask: Why just writers? Isn’t that rather elitist? What about people who are seeking religious freedom, or to escape a tyranny, or a poverty trap? Still, it’s not a bad place to start. Freedom is one of the big reasons to support open borders. Cities of refuge might be a good way to break the ice. And Derrida might serve as a good prophet of open borders, as another impenetrably arcane philosopher, Immanuel Kant, served as the prophet of the democratic peace.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

6 thoughts on “Open Borders and Derrida’s “Cities of Refuge””

  1. Pingback: Thesising
  2. There are several updates to answer your final question – Just to start what would be a long list, my organisation, freeDimensional, uses a global net to find shelters for artists and culture workers under threat, – the Arts-Rights-Justice (ARJ) EU working group brings together arts and human rights associations…ICORN is the International Network of Cities of Refuge – started w/only writers but now branching out. Nordic Countries are especially creating residencies for musicians thanks to the long work of Freemuse, and Artsfex is an emerging network aiming to share and support organisations protecting and defending artists from human rights violations. Check also the new UN Special Report “The Right to Freedom of Artistic Creation and Expression”

Leave a Reply