Why humanitarians wary of “humanitarian corridors”

The crisis in Syria has left many at a loss as to how best to respond. Several countries have floated the idea of a humanitarian corridor. On 16 March, Turkey’s prime minister said he was considering intervening as far as 10km into Syria to create a “humanitarian buffer zone” to help refugees get out. Anne-Marie Slaughter, until recently the director of policy planning at the US State Department, has also called for a “no-kill zone” inside Syria.

For many frustrated by the lack of action at the Security Council, a so-called “humanitarian” corridor seems an obvious solution. But the concept makes many humanitarians uncomfortable. Here are a few reasons why:

Corridors are, by definition, limited in geographical scope and thus “not an ideal solution,” according to Ruba Afani, spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jordan.

The government would have to agree to a corridor… and then abide by its agreement. Many observers are skeptical. “I would expect the Assad government to bombard or starve any such territory,” said Ian Hurd, an expert in international law and associate professor of political science at Northwestern University in Illinois.

The massacre at Srebrenica is a good example of why a corridor would require a protective military presence to be effective. Who would police a corridor in Syria?

At the moment, there is no Security Council resolution authorizing such an intervention. “Despite their neutral character, the success of humanitarian truces, zones, or corridors will inevitably rely on the international community’s political will to take coercive action in protecting civilians in Syria,” writes Claude Bruderlein, director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University.

Syria is increasingly perceived as a theatre for proxy war and struggle for influence between Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, and Shia countries like Iran. A unilateral intervention by Turkey or any other country could spark a whole other series of problems, and could well be seen as a declaration of war.

Aid workers worry that humanitarian rhetoric could be used to further political aims. “There are certain interest groups that would like to have a humanitarian corridor because it would improve the position of the opposition,” one aid worker told IRIN. Slaughter’s proposal involves arming the Free Syrian Army, composed of defected soldiers, to protect the “no-kill zone”.

A humanitarian corridor would presumably allow Syrians to flee safely, but is freedom of movement a major problem? “What we have actually found is that the majority of Syrians who wish to leave have been able to leave,” said one senior aid worker, noting that Syrians have travelled to Jordan from as far north as Idlib and Aleppo. “We’ve been able to speak to people - even in areas under siege - who have been able to leave, but many of them did not want to.” However, the situation is changing, and the government has since closed its official border crossing with Jordan to anyone with a new passport and to families, women and children.*

The debate over the militarization of humanitarian access jeopardizes negotiations for humanitarian access. “By calling a political and military intervention “humanitarian”, Ms Slaughter blurs the lines and makes it more difficult for humanitarians to do their jobs,” wrote Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, head of operations for the ICRC for the Near and Middle East.

“If humanitarian actors are not perceived as neutral and impartial, it’s impossible for us to help those in need,” said Amanda Pitt, spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York.


*This article was amended on 26 March 2012 to reflect new developments on the ground.