The Syrian government, under President Bashar Al-Assad, passed a law that allows the government to confiscate the property of displaced Syrians unless they can prove ownership.
Law Number 10, passed in early April, calls on Syrians to register their properties with the Ministry of Local Administration within 30 days using proof of ownership documents.
Properties that have not been reclaimed at the end of the 30 days will be reorganized into new residential zones. Article 2 of the new law creates a regulatory body that is responsible for producing lists of real estate owners in areas under government control.
Most of the people who inhabited the lands affected by Law Number 10 are opponents of the regime who were forced to flee. This law will predominantly affect displaced Syrians, a group that made up nearly half of the antebellum population with over 5 million displaced as refugees and 6 million internally displaced.
According to the Syrian government, this new law is meant to address the issue of squatter areas and assist in the reconstruction of lands impacted by war. However, legal experts have claimed that the law is an attempt to encourage a demographic change by giving property to those loyal to the regime. Often, this conflict takes on a religious character as Shia Muslims loyal to the regime are resettled into traditionally Sunni Muslim areas. There are rumors that the homes of displaced people are being used to house local or foreign fighters from the regime’s side.
This law comes just days after 19,000 people left their homes in Eastern Ghouta. Abu Jawad, one of those who fled, is unable to return to his properties because he fears for his life.
“This law is simply an extension to the enforced evacuations which aim to empty opposition areas of its rightful owners and give these lands to Assad,” said Jawad.
Like Jawad, many displaced Syrians do not know when or whether they will be able to return to their homes and reclaim their property, much of which was not registered before the beginning of the conflict. A survey conducted by the Norwegian Refugee Council found that only 17 percent of Syrian refugees had documentation for their property with them when they fled.
In some cases, property records have been destroyed by the Syrian government, preventing title holders from proving their ownership. Additionally, the prominent cultural practice for passing down land is through inheritance without registration, which further complicates the situation.
As conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Sudan have demonstrated, these types of property laws could prevent people forced from their land from ever returning. In Bosnia and Croatia, property laws enacted during the conflict era was used to disenfranchise displaced people in an attempt to cement ethnic displacement.
Some legal experts have likened this new law to the Israeli Absentees’ Property Law, which was introduced in 1948 to allow arriving Israelis to move into the homes of the millions of displaced Palestinians.
As these previous conflicts have shown, resolving property ownership issues will most likely be the first step to building peace after the end of conflict in Syria.