Humanitarian Corridor

In: Humanitarianism: Keywords
Sophia Hoffmann
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A humanitarian corridor is a safe route via which endangered civilians are provided with aid and/or are evacuated. A humanitarian corridor is defined and characterized by its highly restricted, narrow space, which distinguishes it from humanitarian projects carried out within a wider or unrestricted space. Humanitarian corridors have a long history and have occurred in many conflicts and disaster zones. Famous examples include the Kindertransport of 1938–1939, in which Jewish children were evacuated from areas under Nazi control to the United Kingdom; the 1992–1995 humanitarian corridor into the besieged Bosnian city of Sarajevo, which included an international air lift; and, more recently, the 2018 evacuation of civilians by bus out of the Syrian city of Ghouta. As these examples show, humanitarian corridors can take on many different forms and can occur through many different initiatives.

The need for humanitarian corridors arises when armed conflict cuts off large numbers of civilians from accessing basic needs. This may occur incidentally as conflict parties fight without taking the civilian presence into account. But it may also happen deliberately through sieges, in which armed actors purposefully cut off residential areas from water, electricity, food, and health care, and effectively hold civilian populations to ransom.

Since the 1990s, most humanitarian corridors have been called for and negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). Humanitarian corridors may be created through negotiations with armed actors who agree to cease hostilities within the corridor; but they can also occur spontaneously when civilians collectively seek a path to safety and are helped by other civilians or state authorities on their way (Kukavica and Plesnicar 2016). Humanitarian corridors can be enforced by military means, and against the explicit goal of whichever actor is endangering the civilian population. A well-known example for this type of corridor is the 1948/1949 airlift by the American army into the German city of Berlin, which was cut off from West Germany by Soviet forces. Since 2011, a new form of aerial humanitarian corridor has emerged in which charitable organizations collect resources to fly civilians out of crisis zones, to enable them to claim asylum or shelter in another country (Kellogg Institute For International Studies 2018). A shared feature of humanitarian corridors is their temporary character. All humanitarian corridors are opened and closed, or appear or disappear, at some point in time. They may exist for only a day, or for several years, or may open repeatedly on certain occasions.

Humanitarian corridors may fail to achieve their goal and have occasionally been abused by armed actors as smuggling routes for weapons or other resources. In every case, humanitarian corridors are not neutral or impact-free activities; their existence changes the make-up of the local war economy, which includes the presence or absence of civilians, and, of course, aid. This explains why it is often so difficult to get all stakeholders to agree on a humanitarian corridor and why corridors are frequently attacked shortly after opening. Another reason why actors may be reluctant to open humanitarian corridors is that they may also lead to the exposure of war crimes by accompanying UN observers or journalists.

Humanitarian corridors draw attention to the way in which space and territory are restructured during crises and disasters. The presence of humanitarian actors can change local infrastructure, real estate markets, leisure zones, and perceptions of where safety and danger are located and who is allowed to access certain spaces (Smirl 2015; Duffield 2012). Thus, humanitarian actors can have a powerful impact on the way in which space is reassigned and redivided in the region in which they operate.


  • Duffield, M. (2012) Challenging Environments: Danger, Resilience and the Aid Industry. Security Dialogue, 43(5): 475492.

  • Kellogg Institute for International Studies (2018) Humanitarian Corridor Initiative. University of Notre Dame.

  • Kukavica, J. , Plesnicar, M. (2016) The Humanitarian Corridor. Border Criminologies (blog).

  • Smirl, L. (2015) Spaces of Aid: How Cars, Compounds and Hotels Shape Humanitarianism. Zed Books.

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