BEIRUT: Syria’s Law 10, which seeks to earmark real estate development zones for reconstruction, is poised to pave the way for sweeping property confiscation across various areas in the war-torn country, Human Rights Watch said.
The full extent of the new law’s impact is unclear, but Lebanese politicians, including caretaker Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani and caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil have expressed concerns that the law may negatively impact refugee returns.
Bassil, who wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem last week, said that the short deadline set for property claims was bound to create problems.
A question-and-answer compiled by Human Rights Watch published Tuesday found the legislation will likely have a disproportionate impact on displaced Syrians and their ability to return.
“The problem with Law 10 is that it amounts to forced eviction,” said Lama Fakih, deputy director for HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division.
“The issue is not that the Syrian government will take steps to redevelop these areas, the issue is with the manner in which they are going about it,” she told The Daily Star.
The law, passed by Bashar Assad’s government on April 2, allows for the creation of redevelopment zones across Syria. The specificities of these areas are not yet known and are to be designated by decree.
Within one week of the decree, local authorities must request a list of property owners from the area’s public real estate authority, which in turn has to provide the document within 45 days.
According to the law, people who do not appear on the list but own property in the redevelopment zone are to be notified.
However, the law does not specify how these owners will be identified and contacted for notification.
“There are a number of things that continue to be unclear about how the decree is going to be implemented, including the notification process,” Fakih said.
Property owners have 30 days to submit documents proving ownership to local authorities. Those who succeed are entitled to one of three options: receive a share of the profits from the reconstruction activities, sell their shares in a public auction, or create a company for investment.
Property owners who fail to submit the relevant documentation within the set timeframe of 30 days will have no right to appeal and will not receive any compensation.
This, HRW claims, is where displaced Syrians and the families of missing persons will be penalized.
“People who are forcibly disappeared will not be able to make a property claim themselves, they won’t be able to appoint a legal agent and their relatives will not be in a position to assert that they are appearing on behalf of the property owner,” Fakih said.
According to the law, if the required documentation is unavailable, a claim can be made by providing the property location, boundaries, information about the real estate category the property falls under and information about any pending legal lawsuits.
If the owner cannot make a claim in person, certain relatives or a designated legal agent can act on their behalf by proving the person’s detention or death.
These conditions, HRW said, do not guarantee due process.
“The challenge with appointing a legal agent is that that agent also has to go through the security clearance,” Fakih said. “We know anecdotally from the people we have spoken with that, if you are from an area considered to be anti-government, it is more difficult for you to obtain legal clearance.”
At the same time, having to approach the authorities for security clearance may have a “chilling effect on those who fear detention or retaliation on the part of the Assad government,” she added.
The Daily Star contacted all major international NGOs providing legal aid to Syrians in Lebanon and found that none of them were ready to comment on Law 10 or offer legal advice to help refugees prepare to file their property claims.
The lack of legal support adds to the pre-existing difficulties in claiming property rights. The Norwegian Refugee Council found that 70 percent of Syrian refugees lack basic identification documentation. Obtaining death certificates or proving that a person is being detained may also prove impossible.
And while redevelopment zones have not yet been designated by decree, anti-government areas have been heavily damaged in the fighting and are therefore likely to be encapsulated in the upcoming decrees.
“When you are creating a system whereby the vast majority of displaced people do not have valid identity documents, do not have the ability to return to their homes and will not be in a position to appoint a legal agent, you are effectively stripping them of their property without [due] process,” Fakih said.
An absence of property owners, the inadequate timeframe within which to file a property claim and the lack of the right to appeal once the 30 days has expired, are some of the elements HRW said are in breach of international conventions.
For Lebanon, where just under 1 million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR, this raises questions as to the impact of Law 10 on the future return of Syrian refugees to Syria. According to a report by the Carnegie Middle East Center, a significant segment of the surveyed refugee population said they are unlikely to go back to their home country without a house or property to return to.
Some residents whose property was confiscated under decrees 63 or 66 – which allow for the redevelopment of areas of “unauthorized housings” and “informal settlements” around the capital – told HRW that they were unlikely to return.
“Law 10 is a worrisome addition to the Syrian government’s arsenal of ‘urban planning laws’ that it has used to confiscate property,” Fakih said.
Those unable to claim property under Law 10 will join the ranks of those whose houses have been destroyed during the war and are not entitled to any compensation.
A Syrian refugee in his 50s who spoke to The Daily Star on the condition of anonymity said he was “constantly worried” about what the new law meant for his ownership of both land and property in the outskirts of Qusair, a town south of Homs that became the destination for a number of army defectors in the early years of the war.
“This is something dangerous,” he said of Law 10. “If you go back to Syria and your land has been seized, your house has been seized ... you are in your country but you don’t have anything. And this is because of a sectarian game. People feel they are victims of an injustice.”