Can ‘safe zones’ for refugees ever be safe?

  • Date

    Fri 16 Jun 17

‘Safe zones’ do not provide a safe or sustainable solution to the global refugee crisis says a new policy brief written by international refugee law experts from the University of Essex.

According to the policy brief, written for the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law in Australia, ‘safe zones’ can only ever provide the “least worst alternative” to asylum in another country.

It has been written by Professor Geoff Gilbert from Essex’s School of Law and Essex human rights graduate Anna Magdalena Rüsch, now an Associate Refugee Status Determination Officer for UNHCR.

The policy brief comes in response to calls from President Donald Trump, Russia and others in the international community for the creation of more ‘safe zones’ and ‘safe corridors.’

Professor Gilbert and Anna Magdalena Rüsch warn that Srebrenica and the present crisis in South Sudan show that externally-imposed safe zones are unlikely to succeed, and do not provide adequate accountability when safety is compromised.

Key findings of Creating safe zones and safe corridors in conflict situations: Providing protection at home or preventing the search for asylum?:

Safe zones are sometimes the only solution for guaranteeing the safety of those trapped in a conflict zone but those safe zones must be neutral, demilitarised and humanitarian in nature, and consensually established by all parties involved in the conflict.

Safe zones do not provide true protection as envisaged by international refugee law.

More than a bare minimum of human rights standards must be observed and humanitarian actors must have unfettered access.

Concluding, Professor Geoff Gilbert and Anna Magdalena Rüsch argue: “Safe zones do not provide a complete solution to displacement. They should not be viewed as safe locations for returning refugees.

“The law on safe zones is underdeveloped and State practice is too erratic and random for them to be considered a proper response to humanitarian crises.

“If states in the global north want to spare refugees the dangers of irregular flight, then they should establish proper pathways to safety through humanitarian and migration channels, and push for peace where conflict is rife.”

The Director of the Kaldor Centre, Scientia Professor Jane McAdam, says:“This Policy Brief shows why caution is needed in assuming that ‘safe zones’ provide the answer. 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.”

Read the full Policy Brief Creating safe zones and safe corridors in conflict situations: Providing protection at home or preventing the search for asylum?

Read Professor Gilbert and Anna Magdalena Rüsch's article for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Listen to an interview with Professor Gilbert and Paul White from UN’s Pro-Cap. Read the Kaldor Centre Factsheet on refugees from Syria.