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 travelling onwards 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.
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. Furthermore, the law is underdeveloped and the practice is too erratic and random for safe zones to be a proper response to a humanitarian crisis. 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.1 Safe corridors could provide that route out – as well as operating to allow those trapped in conflict zones to carry on with their lives by safely accessing work, education, markets and health care, to the extent possible.
This policy brief begins by asking some fundamental questions about safe zones and safe corridors, and sketching the complexity of the international legal frameworks that apply. It then briefly examines the history of the law and practice of safe zones and safe corridors, before analysing the preconditions to their creation, their qualities and character, how they are accessed, and how protection and other human rights can be assured. Finally, it considers the responsibility and accountability of various international actors with respect to safe zones and safe corridors.
The existence of different terms to describe the concepts, and the interplay of several different sub-branches of international law, make the analysis more complicated, but the conclusion reached is that in all but the most extreme circumstances – where flight is impossible – safe zones can never provide a substitute for asylum. They cannot provide the same degree of protection that a safe third country can. By contrast, safe corridors can enable people to flee to a place of safety, and at the very least can help those unable to leave by facilitating access to vital services.
This policy brief makes the following core findings:
- Safe zones are sometimes the only way to guarantee safety to people unable to leave a conflict zone. In those circumstances, drawing on practice that has developed around refugee camps and new ‘protection of civilian’ peacekeeping mandates, safe zones should be neutral, demilitarised and humanitarian in nature. Previous practice indicates that they work best if they are consensual rather than imposed from outside. Where they are the only means of providing people with some level of security, special regard must be had to their creation, to access, to ensuring continued protection, to facilitating the rights of those living there, and to issues of responsibility and accountability of all relevant actors if they are to be at all meaningful.
- Safe zones are, at best, the least worst alternative. They do not provide true protection as envisaged by international refugee law. The law on safe zones is underdeveloped and State practice is too erratic for them to be considered a proper response to humanitarian crises. 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).
- Safe zones must guarantee the following minimum rights:
o the right to life (through the principle of distinction);
o the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;
o freedom from arbitrary recruitment (to participate in the conflict);
o personal security, particularly in relation to sexual- and gender-based violence; o the right to the highest attainable standard of living and health;
o access to humanitarian relief and assistance, and access by humanitarian organisations; and
o freedom of movement, including the right to leave the country and seek asylum (with full respect for the principle of non-refoulement).
- Safe corridors may provide useful avenues to protection and assistance. They will enable some people to leave the conflict zone as safely as possible. They may also facilitate access to essential services, such as markets, health care, employment and education. However, to be effective all parties to the conflict must uphold the safe corridors.