Saying Europe had made a tremendous mistake by admitting millions of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern trouble spots, Trump told ABC News in an interview: "I don't want that to happen here."
"I'll absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people," he added, without giving details.
According to a document seen by Reuters on Wednesday, Trump is expected to order the Pentagon and the State Department in coming days to craft a plan for setting up the "safe zones," a move that could risk escalation of U.S. military involvement in Syria's civil war.
The draft executive order awaiting Trump's signature signaled the new administration was preparing a step that Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, long resisted, fearing the potential for being pulled deeper into the bloody conflict and the threat of clashes between U.S. and Russian warplanes over Syria.
"The Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Defense, is directed within 90 days of the date of this order to produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region in which Syrian nationals displaced from their homeland can await firm settlement, such as repatriation or potential third-country resettlement," the draft order said.
Creation of safe zones could ratchet up U.S. military involvement in Syria and mark a major departure from Obama's more cautious approach. Increased U.S. or allied air power would be required if Trump chooses to enforce "no fly" restrictions, and ground forces might also be needed to protect civilians in those areas.
Still, the document gave no details on what would constitute a safe zone, exactly where they might be set up and who would defend them. Jordan, Turkey and other neighboring countries already host millions of Syrian refugees. The Turkish government had long pressed Obama, without success, for creation of a no-fly zone in Syria on its border with Turkey.
The draft raised the possibility of establishing those safe havens in neighboring countries but did not elaborate.
Trump's call for a plan for safe zones is part of a larger directive expected to be signed in coming days that includes a temporary ban on most refugees to the United States and a suspension of visas for citizens of Syria and six other Middle Eastern and African countries deemed to pose a terrorism threat.
It represents a modified version of the blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States that Trump initially advocated on the campaign trail last year, sparking criticism from human rights groups and across the U.S. political spectrum.