MIDDLE EAST – Christians divided over ‘safe zones’ for refugees
Christian humanitarian and aid groups are divided over whether the policy of creating Safe Zones for refugees in the Middle East will work. “Safe Zones” would be areas set up in the war-torn countries for civilians displaced by the conflict to live in security as they wait to return home. They could be established in both rural and urban areas to provide economic incentives for the population and even return displaced persons to their homes.
In practice Safe Zones are not easy to enforce and could even prove detrimental to those they are trying to protect. With so many regional actors like Turkey and Iran involved in the Syrian conflict and waging “proxy wars” there, civilians inside safe zones could still be at high risk of bombings and attacks.
Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations at Catholic Relief Services, commented: “The Syrian conflict is such a hornet’s nest of proxy wars, to think that in the midst of that a safe zone will be safe indefinitely is just unlikely.” He is unconvinced the idea will work. “Once you declare a safe zone, you’re responsible for keeping the people inside safe for as long as necessary,” O’Keefe said, adding that they “can be extremely expensive and difficult to sustain.”
O’Keefe worries that placing so many refugees in one place could make them even more vulnerable.
“They can become more of a target and even if there’s a sincere effort at providing a security umbrella, you have a lot of vulnerable people concentrated in a very defined area, and for those who want to harm those people, in some ways it’s actually easier,” he stated.
Also Safe Zones do not provide a lasting solution for families who just want to live a “normal life.”
If the conflict does not end soon, the zones could become dead-ends where parents are unable to earn a living and children can’t go to school. Safe Zones are at best a temporary measure that“ doesn’t prepare them to rebuild their society and to go back and play a productive role in wherever they are,”
O’Keefe believes the US should put its diplomatic energy into pursuing peace at the local and regional levels in the Middle East, as well as the “regional and global actors that are, in one way or another, engaged in various proxy battles” in Syria. Providing adequate humanitarian assistance to displaced persons in Syria and neighboring countries should also be a priority.
Phillippe Nassif, executive director of the group In Defense of Christians is less critical of the Safe Zones concept: “We think it’s within the United States’s national security interests to support the creation of safe zones to at least stop the exodus of people leaving Syria and move that conflict more toward a resolution which is favorable to Christians.” He admitted Safe Zones would require “troops on the ground and a no-fly zone” to maintain security.
The Syrian conflict has created the world’s largest refugee crisis, with around five million refugees having fled the country and over six million displaced persons living within the country’s borders.
One million registered refugees live in neighboring Lebanon and many others fled to Turkey, Jordan, and Europe. This has created an unsustainable refugee situation that threatens to destabilize the region around Syria and spread the conflict to other countries as well.
Nassif said “We’re really concerned about Lebanon”, where an estimated one in four persons is a refugee. He added “It is a perfect example of a country where Christians and Muslims co-exist in the region. There’s a Christian president in the country, but we’re very worried that this huge burden on the state and economic and a security burden is not alleviated any time soon, that Lebanon will have its own problems and potential collapse.”
“The longer the conflict goes in Syria, the more likely Christians are going to just be continuing to leave at the rate they’ve been leaving from the country,” he said. Nassif maintains that Safe Zones would ease the burden on neighboring countries that shelter refugees by stemming the flow of refugees from Syria and keep Syrians relatively close to their homes, to which they hope to return. Even though Safe Zones may be risky they are still preferable to the current situation for many embattled religious and ethnic minorities such as Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and Alowites.