What could be safer than a “safe zone”?

25 October 2019


On 22nd October 2019 a Russian-Turkish Memorandum of Understanding on north-east Syria was established in response to the violence and humanitarian crisis raging through the region. At the meeting in Sochi, Russia, President Putin and President Erdogan reached a deal that would see the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from a 30km wide area in Syria, along the Turkish border that would be a so-called “safe zone”. Turkey has stated that their intention is to use the “safe zone” as a resettlement area for up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.

One of the biggest questions that needs to be asked is whether the individuals moving from Turkey into the “safe zone” will actually be safer and better off there. Currently, Syrian refugees in Turkey aren’t facing an imminent attack and are living in relative comfort and safety. Additionally, until recently the region delegated for the zone had been existing in relative peace.


So why create the zone?

Turkey is home to the world’s largest refugee population, amounting to around 3.6 million. With recent difficulties regarding the nation’s economy, President Erdogan and his government have been eager to seek out a solution to handle the extra pressure on the public services and economy. The deal made with Russia allows Turkey to retain control over the “safe zone” whilst having a solution (a very short term and dangerous one) for their refugee population.


How safe is the “safe zone”?

The “safe zone” is problematic at best.

Firstly, there has never been a fully successful “safe zone”. Historically, they have been used for people facing an imminent threat and are in need of immediate temporary refuge. One of the most infamous examples of the inability of a “safe zone” to keep its inhabitants safe, was in Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995. Here, 8,000 Bosniak’s (mostly boys and men) were massacred by Bosnian Serbs in an effort to ethnically cleanse the area. In fact, the “safe zone” failed so gravely that the genocide was the worst episode of mass murder in Europe since the Second World War. “Safe zones” have also failed in Iraq, South Sudan, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.

The destruction of homes has displaced hundreds of thousands since the Turkish offensive on 09/10/2019

Secondly, Turkey has promised to build villages and amenities within the “safe zone” for its new inhabitants. However, they haven’t allocated government funds for this project and are relying on outside donors. Many of the major donors have indicated that they won’t fund humanitarian or development operations within the “safe zone” because of questions of ethics, legality and logistics. Therefore, with an influx of Syrian refugees into a region that is unfamiliar to them and socially fragile, a new humanitarian disaster is likely to be created.

Thirdly, an inflow of 2 million Syrian refugees into the “safe zone” would mean a significant number of Kurdish families living there will be displaced due to Turkey retaining control. Where will they go? Nearly 180,000 people have already been forced out of their homes due to the Turkish invasion on 9th October. The requirement in the Russia-Turkey deal for Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area, has been questioned as to whether it will be used as a tool to further displace Kurdish families and prevent their return to the region.

Finally, non-refoulement means that someone with a well-founded fear of persecution cannot be returned to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened. For example, Syrian men who previously refused to fight on behalf of the Syrian government or militia groups and therefore may face persecution on a resettlement in the Syrian “safe zone”, would have grounds not to be placed there. This is considered a norm of customary international law meaning that even if a nation hasn’t entered into the Refugee Convention, they still have to comply with the rules involved.


What does this mean?

The rules of this law mean that each individual who is planned to be resettled, must be assessed on a case-by-case basis before returning to Syria. Disappointingly, Turkey has made no indication that they will follow this convention. The assessment of a resettlement’s “reasonableness” comprises of questions on the individuals personal circumstances, past persecution, safety and security, respect for human rights and prospects for economic survival. As previously mentioned, Syrian refugees in Turkey are living in relative safety and a move to the “safe zone” would put them at risk of increased danger, so the test of “reasonableness” would surely fail, therefore Turkey would have to abandon the “safe zone” proposal.

Syrian refugees get the final say of whether the “safe zone” is safe and if they decide against their own return, Turkey must comply with its legal obligations and allow those already in Turkey to remain. Turkey must continue to offer protection to those who are fleeing violence and persecution.

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