Rights group warns Syria's new property law threatens refugee returns


A new property law, which empowers the Syrian government to create redevelopment zones across Syria and paves the way for confiscation of property, creates an obstacle for refugees who might want to return, Human Rights Watch said this week.

Passed on 2 April, Law Number 10 calls on Syrians, including the millions who fled war in the country, to claim ownership of their properties with the Ministry of Local Administration within 30 days, or risk forfeiting them to the state.

"Law 10 is a worrisome addition to the Syrian government's arsenal of 'urban planning laws' that it has used to confiscate property without due process or compensation," said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Countries and donors supporting reconstruction in Syria have a responsibility to consider the obstacles this law poses to returning for millions of displaced Syrians," she said.

Human Rights Watch said the legislation will likely have the worst impact on displaced Syrians and their ability to return to Syria. Many in the opposition fear this law was formed to mainly confiscate properties of Syrian citizens who oppose President Bashar al-Assad and are currently living either in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or in Europe. Many Syrians fled the country without any legal papers. Obtaining them would be almost impossible, as many fear arrest if they return.

Assad earlier this month defended the law in an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, saying it has been misinterpreted in order to inflame Western public opinion against his government.

"We cannot take anyone's property," al-Assad said, stressing that this law is only for organisational purposes.

But, for many like Abu Ahmed, a Syrian refugee who has been living in Lebanon for the past six years, the new law raises fears, since it comes at a time as al-Assad and his allies are taking control of the areas at the outskirts of Damascus from the Syrian opposition.

"All of my family are now in Lebanon and Turkey, there is no one inside Syria to follow the procedures set by the government to register property," he told journalists.

When an area is designated as a development zone by the government, property owners must provide proof of ownership in order to get shares in the zone. If they fail to do so, they will not be compensated.

"If you do not follow the procedure, the state can liquidate their titles and seize the property, or at a later stage they will be sold in auction," he said.

A Damascus-based lawyer, who requested anonymity, said, although Syria has long needed to work on updating its property registry, he believes the timing made many wonder: "Why now?"

Some believe the new law is an extension of the 2012 Decree 66, which allowed the government to develop areas with informal housing.

Syrian engineer Nasouh al-Nabulsi, chief executive of Damascus-Cham Holding company, denied that the government was trying to confiscate properties as some Syrian who mainly live outside said. Nabulsi's company works with the government on organising informal properties across Syria.

"All what the government wants to do by this law is trying to organise the houses, which were built randomly and without the right permits," Nabulsi said. "The government is not trying to confiscate any property, as many have claimed. It is part or an organisational plan for unauthorised housings and informal settlements," he said.    (dpa)

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