The conflict in Syria has prompted renewed calls for so-called “safe zones” and “safe corridors” to prevent people from needing to seek protection abroad as refugees, and to encourage refugees to return home. Given the inherent dangers that arise from trying to leave a conflict zone and traveling onward to seek asylum, the idea of creating safe zones within states has been put forward as a positive humanitarian alternative.
Yet there are a number of legal and practical preconditions that must be met for safety to be guaranteed.
Safe zones, if properly established, allow civilians to remain in a conflict zone and avoid the inherent dangers associated with leaving and then transiting to other countries in search of asylum. The number who drown or are abused by people smugglers alone suggests that safe zones could be a humanitarian solution.
Alternatively, where flight is the only viable option, safe corridors can reduce the risks of leaving an area of conflict. They can also provide other means to facilitate protection, such as enabling people to move between different parts of safe zones, and to access vital services.
The situation is more complex, though, not only in terms of the range of different laws that apply, but also in relation to the motivations behind such calls.
While finding ways to stop people from having to take perilous journeys in the hope of finding safety is surely positive, it can be so only if protection is actually available in the safe zone. One might also ask to what extent the call for safe zones is motivated by a desire to reduce the number of asylum seekers traveling to Europe and elsewhere, rather than to a humanitarian impulse to assist people to remain closer to their homes.
The reality of conflict today means that in all but the most extreme circumstances – where flight is impossible – safe zones cannot be a substitute for asylum in another country. They may be the best response to people trapped in a conflict zone, but that is all. They do not provide true “protection” as envisaged by international refugee law.
The idea that states in the “global north” might seek to impose safe zones as a means of discouraging would-be refugees from fleeing (on the basis that they protect them from the dangers associated with irregular movement) is disingenuous. Active measures to seek peace must be the objective of states, rather than trapping people in safe zones at the mercy of parties to a conflict. Safe zones should never be seen as places to which refugees could be returned (for example, through the application of the internal flight/protection alternative).
First, safe zones and safe corridors are only as safe as the parties to the conflict allow them to be. They are not, and never can be, a guarantee of safety, but for various reasons, they may be the best that is available, especially if the international community is not succeeding in promoting peace.
Second, declaring an area a “safe zone” does not reduce the protection owed to individuals located outside it. In other words, the existence of a safe zone should not imply that other localities are necessarily “unsafe.”
One way of enhancing security within safe zones and safe corridors is to establish them consensually. This means that the parties to the conflict mutually agree to their establishment, with agreed conditions and a sense that the safe zone or corridor creates benefits for all concerned. A safe zone or corridor might also be declared unilaterally, and if that call is adopted by other parties to the conflict, then the prospect of success is greater. Safe corridors can provide a route out, as well as operate to allow those trapped in conflict zones to carry on with their lives by safely accessing work, education, markets and healthcare, to the extent possible. They also allow access by humanitarian actors and for the delivery of relief and assistance, both essential elements of anywhere claiming to offer safety.
Success will also depend on lines of communication being maintained throughout the conflict, which is more difficult in multiparty conflicts (and particularly in non-international armed conflicts). The role of protecting powers or international humanitarian organizations (such as the ICRC or UNHCR, both of which have extensive field presences and should have access to all individuals of concern) will also be crucial.
Where safe zones were declared in the past by the Security Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda, there were significant shortcomings – a lesson that should be borne in mind given proposals by the European Union (E.U.), the United States and the Astana process. Indeed, when safe zones are imposed on a state without its consent, the lives of civilians as well as international humanitarian officials may be put at risk: International humanitarian actors have no right of access to a state (or even to all parts of the state where they are lawfully operating), even if they are meant to be able to reach all affected individuals of concern.
While safe zones are the least worst alternative where people are trapped in a conflict zone, practice suggests that those established consensually by the parties have the greatest chance of providing protection. Experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina and South Sudan show why externally imposed safe zones are less likely to succeed.
The Syrian de-escalation zones proposed by Russia, Turkey and Iran as part of the Astana process are also problematic, and the idea that refugees might be encouraged to return there seems faintly ludicrous at this point in time.
If states in the “global north” want to spare refugees the dangers of irregular flight, they should establish proper pathways to safety through humanitarian and migration channels, and push for peace in those areas of the world where conflict is rife.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
This is an edited excerpt from the policy brief “Creating Safe Zones and Safe Corridors in Conflict Situations: Providing Protection at Home or Preventing the Search for Asylum?” by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney. Read the full report here.
For more original reporting, our own in-depth analysis and thought-provoking expert commentary visit our Safe Zones platform.