New law threatens further difficulties for Syria’s refugees

In the absence of western support, Assad is relying on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help rebuild Syria.
Saturday 26/05/2018
A view of the destruction in the Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on May 22. (AFP)
A view of the destruction in the Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on May 22. (AFP)

TUNIS - A new law that threatens to permanently dispossess those who have fled Syria’s fighting has alarmed rights groups, refugees and host countries who fear that the loss of refugee homes in Syria may force their temporary guests to remain permanently.

Though it has yet to be enacted, Syria’s “Law 10” is intended to speed up the reconstruction of many of Syria’s cities, especially those worst hit by the country’s seven years of brutal conflict.

Under the new law, intended to clear the ground ahead of major reconstruction, anyone who can prove ownership of property in an area scheduled for redevelopment will either be entitled to compensation or shares within the redevelopment company.

However, rights groups have raised concerns over the areas where the law will be applied, noting that those regions with the greatest damage are, by extension, those that held out the longest against the Assad regime.

 “If enacted, this law could be used to implement a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering,” Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher said. “Thousands of Syrians, mostly those in pro-opposition areas or who have sought refuge abroad, risk losing their homes because their documents are lost or destroyed. The law does nothing to guarantee the rights of refugees or displaced people who fled for their lives and fear persecution if they return to their homes.”

Under the new law’s auspices, once a local authority has announced a redevelopment plan, current and former residents will have 30 days to submit ownership claims to seek compensation. However, in a war ravaged country where even documenting an individual’s true identity can take weeks, establishing land rights within the government’s time frame is likely to prove challenging.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, 67% of the refugees it interviewed said they owned property in Syria. However, only 17% of those interviewed had retained ownership documents.

Land registries within the destroyed cities are also unlikely to prove much help. A briefing note circulated to European Union states observed, “If it is applied to areas once held by the opposition from which the residents have been displaced, or where land registries have been destroyed, it will in effect prevent the return of refugees.”

Denied whatever stake they held within their home country, Syria’s millions of refugees will also likely lose much of their motivation to return. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose country is home to more than a million Syrian refugees, say the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.

Ownership paper trails, if they exist at all, have also grown intensely confusing during the years of fighting, with families fleeing from one front line to another. Given the constant movement of people, some properties have been bought and sold countless times and often without the correct legal paperwork to support the transactions.

Nevertheless, government supporters say the legal protections for property owners are generous. According to the law’s backers, either family members or those awarded power of attorney can make claims and appeal decisions on behalf of absentee property owners.

Syrian President Bashar Assad also claims that the law has been deliberately misinterpreted to further harden Western opinion against his government, telling a Greek newspaper that the law “is not about dispossessing anyone.”

“You cannot, I mean even if he’s a terrorist, let’s say, if you want to dispossess someone, you need a verdict by the judicial system,” he said.

In the absence of Western support, Assad is relying on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help rebuild Syria. Clearing the ground ahead of what are likely to be lucrative construction projects is a vital aspect of Syria’s reconstruction.