“Safe” Zones Should Not Trap Syrian Refugees

By Eleanor Acer

The United States and Turkey have agreed try to clear ISIL militants from a zone within Syria along its border with Turkey. As the Washington Post noted last week, the plan posits that the zone would be controlled by “moderate Syrian rebel groups.” The effort would significantly step up the scope of U.S. air strikes in northern Syria. Turkey is not getting its wish for a formal no-fly zone, and U.S. officials indicated the area would not be designated as a protected zone.

Turkish officials want the area to serve as a haven for displaced Syrians and to potentially allow refugees to return to their home country. “When areas in northern Syria are cleared of the [Islamic State] threat, the safe zones will be formed naturally,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently told journalists in Ankara. “People who have been displaced can be placed in those safe areas.”

While what exactly an ISIL-free zone within Syria would look like is unclear, nations should remember that blocking refugees from fleeing Syria or pushing refugees to return to an unsafe area within Syria would violate refugee law and leave civilians in dire peril in dangerous and unstable areas.

As I noted in a Letter to the Editor, published in Friday’s Washington Post, “safe” zones are often not safe. The international community has historically done a very poor job of protecting established protected zones for civilians. One notorious example is the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnians in a U.N. protected area were slaughtered in July 1995.

The number of Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR reached the 4 million mark last month. About 1.8 million refugees are registered in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon and over 600,000 in Jordan. These countries are struggling under the pressure of hosting so many refugees.

Since the beginning of the Syria conflict, the United States has resettled only about 1100 Syrian refugees. It is assessing more for potential resettlement. The annual report of the President to Congress on proposed refugee admissions, released last year, calls the Syria refugee crisis “the worst the world has witnessed in a generation,” and indicates that the number of Syrians resettled is expected to “rise dramatically,” including “individuals with close family ties in the U.S.”

The international community should do more to help frontline states like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. While the United States has provided over $4 billion in humanitarian aid since the fighting began in 2011, the U.N. appeal for the Syria crisis is still massively underfunded, with only about 33 percent met. Beyond financial assistance, the international community—including the United States—should host more of Syria’s refugees. At the same time, all states are required under international law to allow refugees to cross their borders, and they cannot return them to places where their lives would be in danger.

As Human Rights First detailed in a comprehensive report released in 2013, besides the moral imperative, it’s in the U.S. government’s strategic interest to lead a strong international effort to resettle and protect Syrian refugees. Destabilization of the region, which includes countries closely allied with the United States, would be a blow to American foreign policy priorities. The United States, as the global leader in refugee resettlement, should spearhead this effort and encourage other states to launch or increase their resettlement initiatives as well.

The United States should continue to press for access to international protection and respect for the prohibition against refoulement. All proposals to protect civilians inside Syria should also respect these essential rights. Refugees should not be pushed back or locked in to a “safe zone”—that would be an invitation to disaster.



  • Eleanor Acer

Published on August 5, 2015


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