When is a safe zone safe?

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by Geoff Gilbert and Anna Magdalena Rüsch

Are safe zones only ever the least worst alternative for people who cannot flee across an international border?

The first 100 days of 2017 saw 664 people die crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. The number who died just trying to reach the North African coast is unknown. Is it any wonder, then, there are calls to establish safe zones so that those caught up in conflict and generalised violence do not have to flee at all?

There is a certain altruism in promoting protection as close to home as possible, especially when most refugees across the world wish no more than that they could return to their country of nationality in safety. It is, however, impossible to ignore the parallel closure of borders by states in Europe and the United States, seeking to prevent those fleeing armed conflict and civil disruption entering their territory: while 94% of those fleeing Syria are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, countries in the EU have used razor wire and water cannon to keep them out. The motivation to create safe zones seems to be more than just a desire to protect people from the dangers that flight creates.

Over the past year, the call for ‘safe zones’ has been made by the EU, by the US under President Trump, and as part of the Astana process led by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The wide range of terms used to name these places can lead to a certain lack of clarity: ‘safety zones’, ‘safe havens’, ‘neutralised zones’ or ‘open cities’ (that is, undefended towns) all have been used at different times. Most recently, in the Astana process, the term is ‘de-escalation zones’.

Some of those terms are defined in treaties dealing with the laws of armed conflict, but the imprecision is not wholly undesigned – if the requirements cannot be set out in detail, it is not straightforward to say when and if the ‘safe zone’ is failing.

But could a safe zone ever be a workable solution for those caught up in conflict zones, enabling them to remain there rather than risk their lives trying to escape and then reach a place of safety that will not try to send them back? A comprehensive new policy brief from the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law raises critical questions. What would be the requirements? What law applies if any?

Safe zones are only ever as secure as the parties to the conflict permit. So they ought to be established consensually and not imposed by the international community. Experience in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and more recently in South Sudan, is that even where the UN Security Council calls for a safe zone, the safety of those who go there is not guaranteed. Srebrenica casts a very long shadow.

If safe zone can be established consensually, it is useful to recognise that they are being used as an alternative to flight by potential refugees. Over several decades working in or next to conflict zones, UNHCR has developed ideas and criteria associated with refugee camps that provide an appropriate starting point.

Safe zones ought to pose little or no risk to the parties to the conflict. Clearly, they must be civilian and humanitarian in character, and relief and assistance should be provided in an impartial manner. Those living there must be able to access as many of their ordinary human rights as possible, so safe corridors will need to be established that not only enable humanitarian actors to reach those in the zone with necessary supplies but also allow those living there to move around to reach work, school, markets and health care. Armed elements should not use safe zones, and no recruitment should be permitted within them.

Yet, in the midst of an ongoing conflict, can they ever be truly neutral? Can strategic locations, such as a town that straddles a river, ever be safe zones? Is a politically motivated safe zone, such as one established to reduce the number of people seeking protection elsewhere, ever be more than an internment camp wrapped up in pious hope?

Are safe zones only ever the least worst alternative for people who cannot flee across an international border?

If safe zones are to be a real an alternative to flight, they should at least approximate the degree of safety and rights that refugees would receive if they are granted protection across an international border – and that is never going to be the case in practice. If states in the global north want to avoid the dangers of irregular flight, then they should establish proper pathways to safety through humanitarian and migration channels, and press for peace in those areas of the world where conflict is rife.

As a final note, it is worth bearing in mind that the states that send aid and assistance to those trapped are the same ones that profit from the sale of arms and which wish to benefit from the purchase of raw materials that are so often at the root of the conflict.

First published in the Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

Geoff Gilbert is a Professor of Law in the School of Law and Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex and a Visiting Professor at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW, and Anna Magdalena Rüsch, LLM, is an Associate Refugee Status Determination Officer for UNHCR.

For more on safe zones, see the Kaldor Centre policy brief: Creating safe zones and safe corridors in conflict situations: Providing protection at home or preventing the search for asylum?