When is a refugee 'safe zone' really safe?

Safe zones for people caught up in areas of conflict are no substitute for asylum in another country, a new Policy Brief issued by UNSW's Kaldor Centre warns.


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Safe zones for people caught up in areas of conflict do not provide true protection as envisaged by international refugee law and are no substitute for asylum in another country, a new Policy Brief issued byUNSW's Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law warns.

The Policy Brief, Creating safe zones and safe corridors in conflict situations: Providing protection at home or preventing the search for asylum?, examines critical legal and practical questions involved in creating safe zones: What are the requirements to ensure that safe zones are ‘safe’? What law, if any, applies? Are safe zones in fact being proposed as a means to discourage would-be refugees from fleeing to other countries? 

So-called ‘safe zones' go by many names – safe havens, neutralised zones, open cities, and now, in Syria, de-escalation zones – but few of these terms are defined in law.

Yet with nearly half a million people killed in the on-going conflict in Syria – and millions more fleeing across the borders – the EU, the US and countries in the Astana process (Turkey, Russia and Iran) have called for the creation of safe zones within Syria as a positive humanitarian alternative.

According to the Policy Brief, safe zones are, at best, the least worst alternative.  

The Kaldor Centre Policy Brief demonstrates that if governments want to spare refugees the dangers of fleeing conflict situations, they should instead establish proper pathways to safety through humanitarian and migration channels, and push for peace in those areas of the world where conflict is rife.

Policy Brief co-author Professor Geoff Gilbert says: “The law on safe zones is underdeveloped, and the practice of managing them is too erratic for them to be considered a proper response to humanitarian crises, particularly if they are imposed by the international community. 

“Safe zones are only ever as secure as the parties to the conflict permit. 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.” 

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.”

The Policy Brief outlines the minimum human rights standards that must apply in any safe zones:  

  • the right to life (through the principle of distinction); 
  • the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; 
  • freedom from arbitrary recruitment (to participate in the conflict); 
  • personal security, particularly in relation to sexual- and gender-based violence; 
  • the right to the highest attainable standard of living and health; 
  • access to humanitarian relief and assistance, and access by humanitarian organisations; and 
  • freedom of movement, including the right to leave the country and seek asylum (with full respect for the principle of nonrefoulement). 

Safe corridors should be established to enable people to access essential services, such as markets, health care, employment and education. However, to be effective, all parties to the conflict must uphold them.  

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 the Kaldor Centre Factsheet on refugees from Syria.