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Assad's land grab: Refugees face losing the homes they fled under new law

Property owners in Syria and abroad must present deeds to offices inside the country by early May or the state could seize their holdings
A displaced Syrian family at a government checkpoint in Idlib province in April 2018 (AFP)

AMMAN - Scrolling through his Facebook feed at his home in Jordan last week, Syrian refugee Salim Muhammad's eyes fell upon a news headline that made his heart sink.

Under a new property law issued by the Syrian government in early April, Muhammad has one month to prove ownership of his house and land in a village near Homs that he fled under government shelling in 2012, or risk losing it.

The regime has abandoned us, bombed us, destroyed us, and now they want to take away our homes and lands

- Muhammad, Syrian refugee living in Jordan

"I always held out hope that we could go back," Muhammad told Syria Direct. "This decree has destroyed all chance of that."

Introduced on 2 April, Law 10 sets in motion a massive overhaul of the government land registry across Syria, state news agency SANA reported.

Law 10 gives property owners both in Syria and abroad just 30 days - starting 11 April - to present their deeds to local council offices in the country. Otherwise, the state can liquidate their titles and seize their holdings. Once the registration window closes, "the remaining plots will be sold at auction," reads Article 31 of the law.

For citizens living abroad like Muhammad, family members as distant as a second cousin may present the documents in their stead.

However, the millions of Syrians impacted by Law 10 include refugees and internally displaced people without family back home to assist with registration, as well as people whose deeds were lost or destroyed during the war.

Security sign off

Perhaps most ominously for opposition supporters, all property owners wishing to register their lands must first obtain approval from state security officials, a lawyer in Damascus familiar with the law told Syria Direct. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

"Without this approval, they will not be able to prove ownership of the property," said the lawyer. "Therefore, it would be sold at auction or claimed by another person."

"Herein lies the seriousness of this decree," she added.

The Daraya Executive Council discusses the return of displaced residents earlier this month (Daraya Executive Council)
The need for security clearance could exclude large swathes of the Syrian population inside and outside the country with outstanding arrest warrants or known anti-government sympathies from registering their property.

Muhammad is one of them. Although he still has the deed for his house and land in the south Homs village of al-Buwaidah a-Sharqiyah, he said the Syrian government has issued an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

"I am wanted by the regime on charges of incitement and attending demonstrations," said Muhammad. "I understand that the regime means to take our property with a legal text, creating new laws to suit their interests."

Law 10 comes in the immediate wake of the Syrian government's recapture of East Ghouta, one of the last major rebel-held areas near Damascus, in early April. The subsequent displacement of more than 60,000 residents to opposition territory leaves the fate of thousands of properties near Damascus uncertain.

Under the new law, former residents of the enclave would now need family members to register property on their behalf, or go to government territory themselves and risk arrest.

The Damascus lawyer who Syria Direct contacted this month said that, although Syria has long needed to update the property registry, she believes the timing of Law 10 makes its motives suspect.

"The timing of the decree, in light of the war which has seen millions displaced and the creation of refugees who cannot return to their homes because of the security situation, certainly raises doubts," she said.

Bureaucratic mess

Even before the latest property law, international aid agencies warned of legal ramifications surrounding the issue of lost or damaged property in Syria. A Norwegian Refugee Council report this past February estimated that the state could face more than 2 million lawsuits from Syrians seeking restitution for lost or damaged property in the wake of the civil war.

The subject of property titles and deeds in Syria is greatly complicated by the existence of parallel administrative systems that sprang up across a patchwork of opposition areas during the conflict. When government forces recapture these areas, documentation produced by opposition authorities is of little use.

The timing of the decree, in light of the war which has seen millions displaced and the creation of refugees who cannot return to their homes because of the security situation, certainly raises doubts

- Lawyer in Damascus

Furthermore, many property documents have been lost or destroyed in recent years as residents fled shelling and ground fighting in regions across Syria.

According to the same NRC report, only nine percent of Syrians who fled their country during the war have access to their property deeds today. An estimated 5.6 million people have fled the country as refugees, and a further 6.1 million people are displaced inside Syria.

Abdel Hameed a-Shami, a 28-year-old media activist from the formerly rebel-held south Damascus city of Darayya, currently lives in opposition-held northern Syria with his family. He left Darayya in August 2016 when all of the city's fighters and residents were evacuated in a surrender agreement with the Syrian government.

A-Shami's family owned a home in Darayya, but the activist said that he, too, is wanted by the government and cannot register his property. Many other former Darayya residents are in a similar position, he said.

A map of a property to be registered in Daraya (Daraya Executive Council)
"There are thousands of families from Daraya that are living outside now, entire families that are wanted by the regime," a-Shami told Syria Direct. He fears the Syrian government is using the law to seize the homes of opposition supporters and give them to its own support base.

In Jordan, Muhammad and his family have few options, he said. With no family left in Syria to register their property and no way for Muhammad to receive security approval due to his arrest warrant, he believes it is only a matter of time until he officially loses his property in Homs.

"The [government] decision has made me lose all hope of returning to Syria," Muhammad said. "The regime has abandoned us, bombed us, destroyed us, and now they want to take away our homes and lands."

Read the original article on Syria Direct. Follow Syria Direct on Twitter.

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