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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Despite UN reassurance, controversial Syrian expropriation law still in effect

Syrians abroad could see themselves deprived of homes and government compensation

Syrian refugee Umm Luay, 30, sits with her child inside a bus on September 17, 2018 as she returns with her family to Syrian after living as refugees in Lebanon for years. AFP
Syrian refugee Umm Luay, 30, sits with her child inside a bus on September 17, 2018 as she returns with her family to Syrian after living as refugees in Lebanon for years. AFP

Last week a top UN official, Jan Egeland, said Syria had scrapped a controversial law which gives the state the freedom to seize property for redevelopment purposes.

However, experts contacted by The National refuted his claim and said that the government continues expropriating private property albeit through means other than law n°10 which has not yet been used.

Signed in April by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, the law builds on a previous 2012 decree (n°66) which allows the Syrian regime to demolish illegal housing and launch major reconstruction projects like high-end skyscrapers and tramways in two Damascus suburbs. Similar moves can now be made in the entire country thanks to law n°10.

This has caused panic among many of the 5.6 million Syrians living abroad who fear the law will deprive them of their homes or of government compensation should they not be able to file the appropriate paperwork. People flocked to Syrian embassies in their respective host countries to request power of attorney for relatives at home, Reuters reported.

In June, Foreign Minister Walid Al Moallem extended the amount of time provided to prove ownership from one month to one year. The law has yet to be amended to reflect this.

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A significant part of the population will not be able to prove ownership at all, as illegal and semi-illegal construction was common and tolerated before the war, says Aron Lund, fellow with the Century Foundation think-tank. Under law n°10, they will only receive two years’ worth of rent as compensation.

Mr Egeland said that Russia, a key ally of the Syrian regime, had informed him of the decision to withdraw the law. “Hopefully this will now be reality on the ground. So, diplomacy can win, even in Syria” he told reporters last week in Geneva.

So far, Mr Egeland’s optimistic remarks remain an empty promise.

Cancelling law n°10 can only be done through a new law or a legislative decree, which has not been passed yet, Damascus-based lawyer Aaref Al Shaal told The National.

Nor has the law been applied, he said. This would require a decree signed by the president specifying which region is targeted for redevelopment.

“We have not seen any statements by the Syrian government or Russia” confirming the news, said Fadel Abdul Ghany, founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Mr Egeland is also secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which did not respond to a request for clarification in time for publication.

Whether it has been cancelled or not, dozens of other laws allow the government to seize, expropriate or demolish private property.

Lately, Human Rights Watch reported that the government started bulldozing private property in Qaboun, a town identified with the Syrian revolution located a few kilometers north-east of Damascus.

Voted back in February, law n°3 allows the government to demolish damaged housing within 30 days of a decision on the status of the property being announced if no successful claim is made. This has “significant implications for people’s ability to maintain their HLP (housing, land and property) rights”, writes Emma Beales, Syria expert and editor of Syria in context, in an article published by The Century Foundation in April.

Additionally, any individual who falls under the counterterrorism law of 2012 may have his assets seized. This “unfairly criminalises a large segment of the population without due process rights or fair trial,” says Human Rights Watch.

Several experts argue that the real beneficiaries of these laws will be businessmen close to the regime such as Samir Fawz and Mazen Al Tarazi, both of whom have invested in construction projects launched under decree 66.

Property rights, though essential to reconstruction policies, may end up being sidelined.

“Given the scale of Syria's illicit building problem, the finer points of the law may not make much of a difference for most of the people involved on an individual or humanitarian level. Their situation is still that they had a home and now they don't have a home,” says Mr Lund.