Trump's plan for Syrian 'safe zones' could put refugees, aid workers at risk

Women sit outside their homes in a high-rise settlement for Syrian refugees in Sidon, Lebanon. Photo by: Peter Biro / European Union / ECHO / CC BY-ND

President-elect Donald Trump’s plan for “safe zones” in Syria to house refugees could be “very dangerous” for civilians and aid workers who run the risk of becoming targets for military attacks, according to a top expert on refugees.

Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution who has advised the U.N. secretary-general during September’s Global Summit on refugees and migrants, said she was “very worried” by Trump’s statements calling for the establishment of “safe zones” in Syria as an alternative to resettling refugees in the United States.

Safe zones, which were also endorsed by Vice President-elect Mike Pence during a campaign debate, are not a new idea. The strategy was first used in 1991 in Iraq to some success. But later efforts to replicate the approach proved failures, most famously during the Bosnian conflict when the town of Srebrenica was designated a safe zone for Bosnian refugees by the U.N. The town was not sufficiently protected and in 1995, Serb forces attacked and killed thousands of people.

Therefore, key issues for a Syrian safe zone will include designating who is responsible for guarding them and the extent of that protection, according to Ferris who is also a professor at Georgetown University.

“I am not an advocate of safe zones, I think we should do everything we can to keep borders open so people can get out, and support host countries. People think safe zones are an easy answer — I think it’s very dangerous, it gives an illusion of safety,” she said.

Syrian refugees, and by association any humanitarian workers assisting them, could become “sitting ducks” for military attacks if rounded up into safe zones, Ferris warned.

Other experts, too, have warned about the dangers of a safe zone policy. To make sure nothing like the Srebrenica massacre happens again, it will be crucial to make the different sides in the Syrian conflict agree to the safe zone in order to “guarantee” the protection of those in the zone, according to senior communications officer at Mercy Corps, Christy Delafield.

“You can’t tell people to move to an area and not guarantee their protection,” she said.

Delafield stressed the need to respect people’s “dignity” and “right to choose” whether or not they move into a designated area.

Ferris also warned of a wider trend of the U.S. reducing support for U.N. agencies including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to which the U.S. is by far the largest donor, contributing 40 percent of its $3.4 billion budget in 2015. 

Approximately 11 million Syrians, half the country’s prewar population, have been killed or forced to flee their homes since fighting broke out in 2011, and approximately 4.8 million refugees have sought safety in neighboring countries, according to U.N. figures.

A reduction in U.S. financing for the Syrian refugee effort would be devastating for relief operations, especially in light of the fact the U.N estimates it will take $7.7 billion to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2016.

Ferris said a future reduction in U.S. foreign aid more generally, and particularly support for multilateral agencies such as the U.N., could have negative consequences for the institutions themselves.
“The U.S. has played a very positive role in last few years in supporting the U.N. to take new initiatives. Without that there’s a worry it will fall back into its bureaucratic normal way of operating,” she said.

However, a recent vote in the House of Representatives to support U.S. humanitarian efforts in Syria, indicated by the passing of the “Caesar Bill’ to sanction the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad for war crimes and crimes against humanity, could spell continued support for humanitarian aid for Syria.

Delafield also said Mercy Corps was encouraged by a number of newly elected senators who showed bipartisan support for continued humanitarian assistance during their recent election campaigns.

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About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.