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Satellite image of a large blast cloud from the demolition of a residential apartment building with high explosives. Blast cloud consistent with the detonation of a large conventional bomb. © DigitalGlobe 2018

As hostilities in Syria wind down, the war is moving to another front – homecoming for refugees, property rights, and reconstruction. While less violent, it will determine the future for millions of Syrians.

The Russian government has been leading a concerted effort to lobby European and other countries to support returning refugees with reconstruction funding. And the Syrian government is calling for refugees to come home and passing reconstruction laws to provide legal framework for funding that comes in and to finance redevelopment.

The refugees I meet, though, believe these laws and plans are designed to keep them out, not to pave the way home. As one Syrian refugee told me, “We live with the reality of a regime that tortured and bombed thousands of its people to death without mercy or capitulation, and now I am to believe that it will protect my property?”

Perhaps the most prominent example of the government’s attempts to control the returns and reconstruction process is Syrian Law 10, passed in April. The law, which the government claimed was a blueprint for reconstruction, in fact contravenes both the Syrian constitution and human rights law by giving the government significant leeway to confiscate property without due process or adequate compensation.

Displaced Syrians are particularly vulnerable. Proving ownership from afar would be difficult, especially as many lost their property documentation when they fled.  Although it was preceded by several other laws that unfairly confiscate property, for millions of refugees considering return, Law 10 became the manifestation of all their concerns

One refugee told me that after Law 10 was passed, his mother decided to go back to Syria, afraid the government would take everything they owned. “My father initially told her not to go, that it’s not worth it,” her son told me. “But she insisted. After all, if we go back [to Syria], and all the things we own are gone, then what is the point? How would we live?” She found that she was unable to access her property. 

The law also caused concerns internationally. In July, 40 countries sent a letter to the UN Security Council and secretary-general, sounding the alarm.

On November 7, in a positive move, the Syrian parliament announced that it had amended Law 10 to extend the time period for proving ownership from 30 days to one year, and to allow for residents to appeal the decision in regular courts.

The amendments are a step in the right direction. However, larger concerns remain, including the requirement for residents to submit documents to prove ownership through abusive security services and the fact that residents can still be evicted even after proving ownership if their property is in a redevelopment area.

From the experience with Decree 66, Law 10’s predecessor, residents who are evicted don’t get adequate compensation or alternative housing, and the shares they get when they prove ownership are insufficient to actually allow them to “repurchase” their property. The compensation will be pre-determined, with no appeal.

The amendments prove that both the Syrian and Russian governments are willing to listen, though. Russian authorities should use their leverage with the Syrian government to address the additional obstacles the law creates, and guarantee that any replacement protects the property rights of affected communities.

But Law 10 is only one of many obstacles to refugee returns. The Syrian government is arbitrarily barring access to their homes for all residents from some areas identified with the opposition like Darayya and Qaboun. In other such areas, there have been widescale demolitions of private homes without adequate notice, or compensation, leaving people with no place to go back to.

A refugee told me that three homes he owned were demolished under the guise of re-development:

“They [the government] find various pretexts to demolish our homes and evict us. It’s not getting any better. It’s not as they portray it to be. Things aren’t back to normal. There’s no reconstruction. There are no services returning. Honestly, after all this, we don’t think of going back, at least so long Assad is in power. Even people who stayed there are suffering.”

If Russian officials are truly serious about facilitating refugee returns, they will have to also address these obstacles. The treatment of refugees who do go back, will be the litmus test for people waiting to see if they should.

Ongoing arbitrary detention and disappearances will also continue to deter returns. Many refugees and displaced people say they don’t dare step foot into Syria for fear of being arrested, tortured, and disappeared. As a confidence-building measure, Russian officials should urge the Syrian government to release people it is holding arbitrarily and allow independent monitors into formal and informal detention facilities. The government should release information about the situation and whereabouts of the disappeared in a way that respects their families’ security and right to know.

Unfettered access for humanitarian organizations is also needed in all parts of Syria, especially in areas retaken by the government, to allow for transparent distribution of aid that meets the rights and needs of the population, rather than the government’s political and economic aspirations. Anything less signals to Syrians considering return and potential financial backers that returns and any financial support that goes to it will be co-opted and will not reach the people who need it.

It will take more than a call to return for the Syrian government to be credible when it says it will ensure “the security and safety of its citizens and provide them with the necessities of a decent existence,” as it told the Security Council in a letter. It has spent the last seven years proving otherwise.

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