Faced with the immense challenges of family reunification, complex immigration systems, and finding gainful employment abroad, some Syrian refugees are returning to their country. Instead of being welcomed by their home nation, however, reports indicate that they are forced to undergo a “reconciliation” process with Syrian authorities that many times results in their arrest and sometimes even their death. In its latest human rights report on Syria, the U.S. State Department said that “persons who unsuccessfully sought asylum in other countries…faced prosecution” on their return, and that the government “routinely arrested dissidents and former citizens with no known political affiliation who attempted to return to the country […].”
If the harassment, detention, and murder of repatriated Syrian refugees were not enough, last week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ratified Law No. 10 of 2018—a hastily drafted measure that drives home the reality and makes law the fact that the Syrian regime does not want Syrian civilians to return.
Advanced by the government under the pretense of reconstructing the war-torn nation and improving the quality of housing, the law empowers the government to designate areas inside Syria for redevelopment. Per the law, when an area is designated, property owners within it will have 30 days to go to the local administrative unit and file a claim of ownership, in order to ultimately be compensated as they will be displaced from their properties because of the government’s plans. Assuming that property owners even have their ownership documents—a fact that cannot be taken for granted amid displacement, war, and reports of systematic land registry destruction—the law entirely ignores the reality that the war is still ongoing, that over five million Syrians are refugees living outside the country, and that over six million Syrians are internally displaced from their original homes inside Syria.
For internally displaced persons seeking to establish ownership per the law, traveling back to their original homes to claim property is extremely dangerous, if not impossible, because of the threat of arrest or forced conscription upon return, constant bombardment across the country, and government control of entry and exit points. Although the law states that family members up to “the fourth degree” can make an ownership claim on behalf of an absent property owner, forced displacement has largely uprooted entire families, neighborhoods, and villages, making this point nearly irrelevant. Further, in rare cases that extended family is present in the area, their absent, property-owning family members are often wanted by authorities; thus, extended family members who fear government retaliation, arrest, or forced conscription for their loved ones are unlikely to submit claims on their behalf.
If the implementation of Law No. 10 of 2018 is anything like that of prior redevelopment regulations, including Decree No. 66 of 2012, which the new law amends and expands, the legislation can be expected not only to line the pockets of Assad regime cronies through new redevelopment projects at the expense of dispossessed property owners who receive insufficient compensation, but also to disproportionately target previous opposition strongholds for demographic change. Decree No. 66 allowed Syrian authorities to “redevelop areas of unauthorized housing and informal settlements” in two specifically designated locations in Damascus. Although the areas were in fact lower and middle-class neighborhoods that could—to a casual observer—seem to be legitimate targets for redevelopment, they were unique in being opposition strongholds. In fact, similar neighborhoods that were largely aligned with the Assad government and at similar socioeconomic backgrounds were left untouched by this displacement and redevelopment scheme.
With the way that Law No. 10 of 2018 is currently written, Syrian authorities will be able to very simply and quickly repossess property that was legally paid for, owned, or inhabited by Syrian civilians, because the vast majority of these individuals who once owned property in opposition strongholds will be—for the reasons mentioned earlier—unlikely to make proper ownership claims in the short designated window. As a result, Syrian authorities will get away with not having to pay a single dime for many pieces of repossessed land, allow a cadre of wealthy developers and financiers to benefit from reconstruction during war and thus strengthen their allegiance to the Assad government, and be able to resettle unclaimed property and land with settlers of political and socioeconomic backgrounds of their choosing, writing into law an official policy of forced demographic change.
Numerous reports have surfaced that pro-government Syrian and Iranian settlers have been allowed to informally and illegally take over homes in former opposition strongholds once the original civilian residents were forcibly displaced as a result of the regime’s siege, starvation, and bombardment policies. Accordingly, displaced Syrians legitimately fear that the new individuals resettled by Law No. 10 of 2018 will also be war-time elites and pro-government settlers. They believe that the law will enable Syrian authorities to switch out civilians who once expressed opposition to the government with more “loyal” citizens—as the government has already begun to do—ultimately creating communities that are unlikely to revolt and allowing the Assad regime to masquerade its population engineering as authentic support for the government.
Setting forth legislation that strips Syrian civilians of their homes and ownership rights without due process and during conflict is not only in violation of numerous international human rights and humanitarian legal protections, but in effect chips away at the legal and practical Syrian right of refugees to return. With Law No. 10 of 2018 on its side, the Assad regime sends an unequivocal message to most displaced Syrians that they are no longer welcome. Those who do return despite this message risk homelessness at best, and, at worst, arrest, torture, and death.