Fleeing a conflict zone is dangerous. The route to safety, to a country where a refugee can obtain protection, can be deadly. Over 3,700 people died trying cross the Mediterranean in 2016, as well as an unknown number of people who died as they crossed the desert on their way to the North African coast. Human trafficking gangs exploit those seeking protection all along the way. No wonder safe zones are being touted by the European Union, the United States under President Donald Trump, Russia, Turkey and Iran as a necessary humanitarian move.

But there is no agreement on the language used to describe “safe zones.” Some of the terms include “safety zones,” “safe havens,” “neutralized zones,” and “demilitarized zones.” The law that would govern them is also underdeveloped. This broad fog of confusion has enabled this particular bandwagon to keep rolling without any proper challenge. At least the de-escalation zones of the Astana Process, aimed at resolving the Syrian Civil War, don’t pretend they will be conflict-free.

If safe zones were safe, they would remove many of the perils of crossing a war zone in order to reach safety. And a truly secure safe zone would raise fewer doubts that states in the global north are only advocating for them to keep refugees away from their borders and out of their countries.

If a safe zone is meant to prevent the need to flee, then it needs to satisfy the demands of international refugee law, international human rights law and the international law of armed conflict.

The laws of armed conflict are premised on the principle of distinction, that is, that civilians should never be targeted, although they might be killed or injured during a proportionate attack on a military objective, so-called “collateral damage.” That principle applies to all civilians whether inside or outside of a safe zone. Thus, a safe zone needs to go way beyond that – it needs to allow civilians to live their lives, as much as possible, free from the exigencies of armed conflict, as if they had left the conflict zone and found protection in another state. 

In terms of international human rights law, it is not enough to guarantee the right to life or to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Rather a safe zone must facilitate access to a whole range of rights that are supposed to be available in a refugee camp outside of the conflict zone: access to health care, to food and medicine, to education and to employment. Implicit in that is access by humanitarian actors along safe corridors and the ability to deliver aid in an impartial manner to those in the zone.

While those states in the global north advocating for safe zones might agree with humanitarian access and the entitlement to a whole range of rights, it is not so clear that the right to leave one’s country of nationality in order to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution would receive as much support. Yet, those rights are intrinsic to international law norms and guidance on safe zones’ closest equivalent: refugee camp in some third safe state. A refugee camp serves as a valid comparison, given that states have called for safe zones instead of people having to flee to asylum in other countries.

Beyond the abstract, experience with safe zones in practice generally does not bode well. The ones in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, even the current ones in South Sudan, where the UN Security Council’s Chapter VII-mandated peace support operation can use all necessary means to protect civilians, have not prevented attacks on the civilians living there. One of the things common to those cases is that the safe zones were imposed from outside. Successful cases from the past suggest safe zones need to be created consensually, with the agreement of all the parties to the conflict. And consensus is achieved where, in line with practice for properly established refugee camps, they are demilitarized, humanitarian, neutral and wholly civilian in character.

Safe zones work where all sides see them as providing them with some benefit. They are not planned as part of some migration-control regime; they happen in a conflict zone where flight is not possible. They are a temporary fix for those who cannot flee, and they should never be seen as a place to which refugees could be returned. They are not a substitute for people seeking refugee status in some third state. They are at best, the least bad alternative for people trapped in a conflict zone and where no safe corridor exists to evacuate them to a true place of safety.

If the principle of distinction is not being recognised; if humanitarian actors have no access to monitor the situation; if humanitarian relief and assistance cannot be delivered freely; if the zone does not secure the raft of rights indicated above to make existence in the safe zone as close as possible to having left the conflict zone; and if the zone is not a secure place for those living there because it is not humanitarian in character, neutral and demilitarized, then it does not deserve the epithet ‘safe’ … it is just internment camp wrapped up in pious hope.

The authors would like to thank the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law for the opportunity to investigate this subject – the full policy brief can be found here. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect those of any organization with which they are associated.

Image: Getty/Spencer Platt