Syria: 'Absentees law' could see millions of refugees lose lands

by Arwa Ibrahim

Legislation could allow government confiscate properties of displaced Syrians unless they prove ownership in 30 days.

Bashar al-Assad's government says the law aims to reorganise squatter areas and lands affected by the war into new residential zones

As thousands of Syrians flee their homes in Eastern Ghouta to escape a fierce air and ground offensive led by pro-government forces, President Bashar al-Assad has introduced a new law which can potentially see the state confiscating the lands of millions of displaced people.

Law Number 10, introduced earlier this week, calls on Syrians to register their private properties with the Ministry of Local Administration within 30 days.

Titleholders must either provide proof of ownership documents themselves, or ensure a relative does so on their behalf. Otherwise, they face having to relinquish their properties to the state.

According to Article 2 of the law, a regulatory body will be responsible for drawing up a list of real estate owners - conditional on receiving documentation in support of ownership claims - for areas under government control.

Properties that are not reclaimed by their owners within the month-long period will otherwise become part of a plan to reorganise the areas they belong to into new residential zones.

But with about 13 million Syrians, internally or externally displaced and therefore unable to access their lands, many families face the potential of losing their homes forever.

"This law can effectively deprive millions of Syrians of their lands and properties," said Nizar Ayoub, an international lawyer and expert on conflict resolution.

"It is the latest in a series of measures taken by the state to punish those who have opposed the Assad government by denying them their rights to their lands," added Ayoub, founder of Al-Marsad, the Arab Centre for Human Rights in Golan Heights.

Syria's 'absentees law'

Legal experts have been quick to liken the recently introduced legislation to the Israeli Absentees' Property Law.

That law was brought in after the 1948 war to allow arriving Israelis to move into the homes of millions of Palestinians forced off their lands.

"Just like the 'Absentees Law' allowed Israelis to take over the properties of Palestinians forced off their lands in 1948, Assad's new law could see the state confiscating the lands of millions of displaced and refugee Syrians," said Ayoub.

In recent years, the Absentees' Law has been used by right-wing groups seeking to increase Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, which is traditionally dominated by Arab neighbourhoods.

'If I go back, I'll either be killed or arrested'

The move by Assad's government comes just days after the latest batch of about 19,000 Syrians left their homes in Eastern Ghouta for the northern province of Idlib following two evacuation deals reached with the Russian army in March.

"This law is simply an extension to the enforced evacuations which aim to empty opposition areas of its rightful owners and give these lands to Assad," said Abu Jawad, one the thousands of Syrians who fled their homes in Eastern Ghouta in recent weeks.

"It is impossible for me to go back home to prove my right to my lands and properties," the 27-year-old, who owns two homes and an electronics shop in Hammouria, told Al Jazeera.

"If I attempt to do so, I'll either be killed or arrested by pro-government forces," added Abu Jawad who fled to the northwestern province of Idlib earlier this month.

To date, an estimated 150,000 residents of Eastern Ghouta have been evacuated to northern Syria.

Enforced change

The government says the new law aims to address the issue of squatter areas and the reconstruction of lands impacted by war.

Experts argue, however, that it aims to punish those who have opposed Assad as well as create demographic changes on the ground in Syria.

"It is completely illogical that a law which aims to rebuild Syria and repopulate areas affected by the war is introduced while the war is still ongoing," Diala Shehade, a human rights lawyer, told Al Jazeera.

"Carrying out this transitional phase of reconstruction and re-population before addressing the issue [that] millions of Syrian are refugees or internally displaced, points towards the ill intentions of the Assad government," she added.

Ayoub agrees: "The most dangerous thing about this law is that it has been issued in the midst of the ongoing armed conflict, and as millions of Syrians are unable to return to their homes to prove ownership of their properties," he told Al Jazeera.

According to Ayoub, the law may, therefore, play into what has been described as a plan to change the demographics of Syria, which according to reports since 2015 has seen Shia communities from across Syria, Lebanon and Iraq resettle in areas previously inhabited by Sunnis who were forced to leave their homes.

Population exchanges have reportedly been key to a plan to make demographic changes to parts of the country.

The goal, some have argued, is to enable the government and its allies to pursue their strategic interests even further by creating specific areas under their direct control.

"If we take Eastern Ghouta as an example, the thousands of families who are now displaced for opposing Assad might be replaced by people who have supported him instead," said Ayoub.