Jodesz Gavilan is a journalist based in Manila who has spent the majority of her career reporting on former President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. After years of interviewing sources, documenting cases of extrajudicial killings, and tracking the fight for justice led by victims’ families, Gavilan was exhausted.

“I was reeling from the six years I spent covering Duterte; tired, traumatized, burnt out,” Gavilan told Global Citizen. “I was scared that if I didn’t take time off, I was going to hate my job.”

Around the world, human rights defenders and journalists like Gavilan are under attack. The people on the front lines of the human rights movement face ongoing threats of being harassed, arrested, disappeared, or killed by corrupt administrations. Those in charge of documenting human rights violations spend their days face to face with traumatic acts of violence for the sake of exposing the truth.

These human rights defenders are forced to live in fear, withstanding threats to themselves or their families, which can negatively affect their mental health and ability to continue their work sustainably. 

Without the time and resources to care for their own well-being, activists are unable to promote human rights.

To address this reality, key actors in the human rights movement have banded together to cultivate safe spaces for members of civil society. These spaces are called “shelter cities,” and they attempt to acknowledge the psychological burden that many activists, reporters, and civil society workers experience over the course of their careers, with the goal of creating a more sustainable and healthy human rights movement globally.

What Are Shelter Cities?

Shelter cities are specific communities around the world that host members of civil society in need of rest and respite. Organized by local governments, civil society organizations (CSOs), and even university programs, they are set up to provide resources and support to the people who have spent their careers advocating for others.

Though shelter cities provide more than just the basic necessities, they were not created to host activists facing crisis or in need of relocation assistance. Rather, these temporary safe havens provide a place for human rights defenders to process what they’ve been through and share their story with others before returning to their work.

“One of the reasons why shelter cities were created is to give activists who face a barrage of risks the ability to take some time out, recharge, and get re-motivated and re-inspired to continue their work,” Ed O'Donovan told Global Citizen.

As the senior advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor, O'Donovan addresses the particular challenges faced by activists in order to better protect those working in human rights.

“It’s a great model that recognizes that human rights activists aren’t superhumans. They’re just normal people who get worn down facing this type of work,” he said. “Having the time, space, and resources to be able to take a step back is a really important part of the human rights movement.”

How Do Shelter Cities Support Human Rights Defenders?

Gavilan was able to experience the benefits that shelter cities bring to human rights defenders in October 2022, when she was invited to the Netherlands as part of a three-month stay organized by the non-governmental organization Justice & Peace.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” Gavilan said. “I really appreciated the focus on mental health. [Shelter City] allowed me to talk to therapists. During a training session in The Hague, they led a session that helped me understand how trauma affects the brain.”

Justice & Peace advocates for accessible pathways for refugees and protects human rights defenders in danger. Their initiative Shelter City was founded over 10 years ago to support activists and connect them with smaller communities to advance the human rights movement.

“We know that three months may not be life-changing, and that the situation at home may not change, but [the Shelter City initiative] can help human rights defenders continue their work more safely and more sustainably,” Aisha North, communications officer at Justice & Peace, told Global Citizen.

Capacity Building Trainings and Seminars

Justice & Peace’s Shelter City program provides training that relates to various aspects of the human rights movement. Activists are given the opportunity to learn about digital security and how to protect their location and data from unfriendly government regimes. They are also able to attend seminars in advocacy and fundraising, so that they can support themselves throughout their careers. 

“You can’t continue your work sustainably if you aren’t taking care of yourself,” North explained. “If you can’t financially support yourself, you will likely not be able to continue working in human rights. So [these seminars] are another important aspect of [shelter cities] to help human rights defenders sustain their work.”

Building Knowledge Around International Human Rights

For activists who may not have a formal education, but are actively working in human rights, shelter cities also provide an opportunity to access relevant learning opportunities.

When human rights defenders can access courses relating to their fields, they are able to bring that knowledge home to share with colleagues. Attending classes also gives activists the chance to raise awareness about what is happening in their home country, allowing real life examples of the human rights movement to educate and inspire classrooms.

Engaging local stakeholders — like universities and human rights programs — is an important part of making sure shelter cities are effective in capacity building. To this end, universities have increasingly become part of the shelter city initiative. 

The University of York’s Center for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) in the UK, for example, has long supported human rights defenders at risk through temporary relocation and research opportunities. In 2021, CAHR became a coordinating partner for the city of York to join Justice & Peace’s Shelter City program.

Promoting the Human Rights Movement

Finally, building connections that cross national and regional borders is what allows shelter cities to be effective in promoting human rights. Introducing human rights defenders to relevant organizations, agencies, and government leaders, for instance, helps activists grow a network of allies.

“We try to set up shelter cities where there’s a vibrant civil society because that way, human rights defenders can meet with other people, organizations, government officials, policy makers, funders, and connectors,” North told Global Citizen. “These provide a safety network for defenders when they return home; if they fall into trouble, they have this international network of support.”

Another part of Justice & Peace’s Shelter City program is to engage all levels of society, including individual community members, to drive the cycle of human rights forward. 

While living in the Netherlands, Gavilan was able to attend classes on international human rights law at Radboud University, connect with NGOs about her work, and visit the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

But just as valuable as these experiences was her time visiting schools, where she talked about her work documenting the human rights movement with the next generation of world leaders.

Why Should Global Citizens Advocate for Shelter Cities?

At Justice & Peace, new shelter cities are approved after a thorough process that analyzes how effective the city will be to human rights defenders. But even after ensuring the area is safe, the civic space is open, and that there are ample resources available, the NGO underscores that government support remains one of the most important factors in making shelter cities accessible to activists.

“Visas are an important topic that we’re trying to advocate for,” North said. “In the Netherlands, human rights defenders are on an EU tourist visa for three months. But what we actually need is for countries to have a separate visa for human rights defenders that would allow people to leave their countries, relocate temporarily, and then return.”

Governments provide much-needed funding, resources, and procedural support to activists at risk. To increase the number of shelter cities — and enable more human rights defenders to access these safe spaces — Global Citizens can lobby their national representatives to support the initiative.

“[Shelter cities] seem to mostly exist in European countries, and there’s progress in sub-Saharan Africa,” O'Donovan shared. “But it’s interesting to note they haven’t [progressed] in North America.”

Having created the most expansive network of shelter cities — with 21 of them spread around the globe — Justice & Peace is just one organization that recognizes the need to support civil society. 

Through the Ubuntu Hub Cities program, the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network has organized eight shelter cities spread across the African continent to serve human rights defenders seeking rest and connection within the continent. Other examples of shelter cities, such as Oslo’s Breathing Space City initiative, are continuing to pop up around the world.

By joining the network of shelter cities around the world, governments can enable more human rights defenders to access the space, recharge, and return to their work, ready to hit the ground running. As a result, they will also have a hand in promoting the human rights movement as a whole.

“Before entering this program, I felt that I did not deserve to rest while my countrymen were suffering, while thousands of victims had yet to find justice.” Gavilan said. “But I realized that it’s not selfish to want better for yourself, and I try to remind younger journalists that they have to take care of their mental health. I’m so grateful to Shelter City for making me realize that.”

This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic space, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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