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The battle for Yarmouk continues: Damascus’ laws, decisions threaten property rights

Former residents of the Palestinian Yarmouk camp in Damascus face a “legal battle” with the Syrian regime regarding decisions on rubble removal, heightening fears they could lose their property.


22 March 2023

PARIS — On January 23, 2023, regime-controlled Damascus province gave the owners of property in Yarmouk camp, located in the south of the capital city, a one-month deadline to contact the Yarmouk Services Department to remove their buildings that had collapsed or were on the verge of collapse. If not, “they will be removed, and they will be obliged to pay the necessary fines,” read the announcement published in the official al-Baath newspaper. 

Four days later, the head of the Palestinian Jurists’ Union in Syria, Noor al-Din, wrote in a post on his personal Facebook account that the province had withdrawn the decision as “Law 3 of 2018 should be applied.” The province gave no explanation for withdrawing the announcement. Law 3 specifically relates to “the removal of rubble from buildings damaged as a result of natural or unnatural causes or due to being subject to laws requiring their demolition.”

The decisions and announcements made by the Damascus government in relation to areas damaged by bombardment, especially those located in areas of unauthorized and informal housing, have long raised concerns among owners about losing their property. 

In the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, a sort of legal battle has been underway between residents of the camp and the Syrian regime, since the latter took control of it in May 2018, surrounding the removal of rubble and the prevention of residents from returning to  the “capital of the Palestinian diaspora.”

Evacuation at victims’ expense

In March 2022, Um Hadi, a Palestinian woman, returned from Lebanon to Syria to inspect her properties—a residential building and a commercial space—and obtain security approval for removing rubble from them, making use of Bashar al-Assad’s decision to facilitate the return of residents of Yarmouk camp “without restrictions or conditions” from September 10, 2021.

The 50-year-old woman obtained security approval authorizing her to enter the camp but told Syria Direct that she “couldn’t recognize many landmarks because of the amount of destroyed buildings.” More than 60 percent of the camp, which was established in 1957 and was home to more than a quarter of a million Syrians and Palestinians prior to the uprising in March 2011, was destroyed. 

A week after she entered the camp, Um Hadi explained, the municipality asked her to contact them in order for an engineer to accompany her to her properties “to assess the damage, find out whether the properties can be restored or are at risk of collapsing and calculate the amount of building materials required in order to grant security approval to bring in the amounts needed.”

The municipal engineer who assessed the damage to Um Hadi’s home and commercial space found that the properties could be restored. He asked her to “take the remaining rubble from inside her home out into the street on the basis that the municipality would then take away the rubble and clean the neighborhood’s streets.” 

As for her commercial space, located on al-Oruba Street, “the rubble cannot be removed and it cannot be cleaned as the municipality requested, because part of another building has collapsed over the roof of the shop and in front of the door, and removing this amount of rubble would cost millions of Syrian pounds,” Um Hadi said. “The whole street is just a mountain of rubble.”

Neither Yarmouk municipality nor Damascus province has announced any decision to compensate residents for the expense of removing rubble from their properties, only stating that the Damascus government would remove rubble from the streets. However, several sources told Syria Direct that, so far, none of the streets of Yarmouk camp have been opened.

The relevant Damascus-affiliated authorities’ failure to remove rubble from the camp, or other rubble, prevents some affected owners from benefiting from their property, or increases the costs of paying to remove it—as in the case of Um Hadi’s sister. 

“A four-story building fell on her house, which was partly damaged as a result, but it would still be habitable if the rubble from the collapsed building were removed,” Um Hadi said. The problem is “removing rubble from a building owned by someone else, and paying enormous amounts.”  

Um Imran, who lives in Damascus and also owns property in Yarmouk, criticized the regime’s policy of removing rubble at victims’ expense: “It’s as if Damascus province is blaming us, as though we are the ones who destroyed our homes, and the onus is on us to remove the rubble at our own cost.”

Um Imran told Syria Direct that she owns two properties in Yarmouk camp, both of which are four-story buildings, and that “both of them have been razed to the ground” as a result of military operations carried out in the camp.

Um Imran sees the prevention of Yarmouk camp’s residents from returning and the obligation placed on owners in the camp to remove rubble as “a pressure tactic to get us to resort to contractors, accept their unfavorable terms and sell our homes dirt cheap.” Contractors’ conditions include “taking iron, wood and anything else that can be sold from the building, in return for breaking down the rubble to facilitate its removal,” she said.

Ammar al-Qudsi, a media activist displaced from Yarmouk to the opposition-controlled northern Aleppo countryside, sees Damascus’ policies related to the Yarmouk camp as aimed at “pushing residents to sell their properties to contractors and businesspeople, some of whom are linked to Iranian militias, and prevent the camp from going back to the way it was—the capital of the Palestinian diaspora.” He told Syria Direct that “many of my neighbors have been forced to sell their properties through real estate offices in the camp.”

Fears of losing property

Five sources told Syria Direct they were concerned about the effects the Damascus government’s decisions on the removal of rubble would have on their own properties, including the January 23 that was later withdrawn, as the decisions are “random and uninformed,” according to Um Hadi.

“Removing rubble without the relevant committee could cause us to lose our properties,” Um Hadi added. She called on the Damascus government to “leave our homes’ rubble for now, and simply remove the rubble from the streets.” She wondered, “if the government does not intend to pay for the rebuilding and restoration, why does it want us to remove the rubble?”

Yarmouk camp is included in a plan to rehabilitate areas of unauthorized construction. Consequently, “the issue of removing rubble is complicated there, especially as there can be multiple owners for a single share of real estate, as is the case in residential buildings comprising multiple apartments or properties that were built on the same real estate share and were not later regulated,” a Syrian lawyer living in Damascus who used to live in Yarmouk camp told Syria Direct, asking to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Related to the most recent decision taken and subsequently withdrawn by Damascus province, the lawyer warned that “the decision to allow one person among a group of property owners to obtain a request to remove rubble personally or through a contractor is wrong and leads to the loss of rights,” as “the ownership of each apartment in or share of a property, including any rubble, assets, documents or remains of furniture within it, even if damaged, belongs to the owner of that share, and no one owner can dispose of the property of others.”

The lawyer sees the withdrawn announcement as “applicable in cases where the property has a sole owner, provided that they go to the municipality and come to an agreement with them on the demolition and reconstruction, the boundaries of their property are taken into account and there is no infringement of the property of any of the neighbors.”

However, where there are multiple owners, Law 3 of 2018—which relates to the removal of rubble from buildings damaged as a result of natural or unnatural causes, or due to them being subject to laws requiring their demolition—should apply. 

According to the lawyer, this law “resolves the issue of not being able to find all of the owners and allows rubble to be removed through a 20-step process taken in the presence of a real estate judge, a surveyor, a representative of the municipality, a specialist real estate assessor and two representatives from among the residents. The area for rubble removal is then determined, and any possessions are removed from the property and kept aside by the municipality until their owners return.”

The lawyer said that the issue of removing rubble without reference to Law 3 “does not only lead to the loss of property, as it is easy to regain the property later through any government document, such as an electricity, municipality or financial bill, or even the testimony of neighbors or a police officer.” However, he said that the biggest problem relates to “possessions within the property. Without the relevant committees working in accordance with Law 3 of 2018, people’s rights will be violated.”

In response, another lawyer and council member of the Hama branch of the Free Syrian Lawyers Association, Abdul Nasser Hoshan, said that he sees Law 3 of 2018 as “granting the governor the power to determine the real estate area and the damaged buildings that need to be removed” while giving property owners “a month-long period to prove their rights, without any right to appeal against the governor’s decision, and giving the province the power to decide to remove buildings prone to collapse.”

The “risk of this law” for property owners therefore lies in “the likelihood of a search for property owners, which threatens property owners whose title deeds have been lost or damaged as a result of the destruction and forced displacement, and those who are unable to submit objections within the timescales,” Hoshan told Syria Direct.

Article 6 of Law 3 of 2018 states:

(A) The rights holders mentioned in Paragraph C of Article 2 of this law have the right to appeal the contents of this schedule before the Civil Court of Appeal in the province in which the real estate area headquarters is located, within 30 days from the day after the schedule’s publication in the Official Gazette.

(B) The Court of Appeal shall take a final decision on the appeal in the deliberation room within 30 days of the appeal’s registration.

(C) The schedule shall be considered final once the specified period for appealing its contents is over or decisions on the submitted appeals have been made and adopted. The contents of this schedule have no effect on property rights registered with the real estate registry or other similar real estate records.

“Law 3 does not discuss what should happen to properties where the removal of rubble or buildings prone to collapse has been completed, nor does it clarify whether a landowner has the right to construct a new building on their land, whether the owner should be compensated, or even whether the land should be appropriated and its owner paid in return or compensated with alternative housing,” yet it clearly indicates “a property owner’s right to the ruins of their building,” Hoshan said.

For his part, lawyer and human rights activist Jamal Zohouri believes Law 3 “may be acceptable in normal circumstances, but in this catastrophic situation the law does not take into account the situation of the displaced rights-holders or how to submit requests to prove these rights.” Consequently, “anyone who has not registered their property with the real estate registry and has not applied to the aforementioned committee has completely lost their rights,” he told Syria Direct.

But camp residents’ concerns are not only related to rubble removal. In June 2020, Damascus province announced a development plan for the area of Qaboun—a neighborhood northeast of the capital—and a vision for the development of Yarmouk camp in Damascus. The plans went beyond the framework of Law 10, a law adopted by Damascus in 2018 providing for the establishment of the legal infrastructure for reconstruction projects across the country, and which sparked controversy in recent years surrounding the possibility of the law expropriating millions of people in Syria. 

Following widespread objections from Yarmouk camp’s residents to the Damascus Provincial Council, the development plan was temporarily suspended. It remains delayed and under review by the Council of Ministers, as a member of the Operations Office, Samir Jazairly of Damascus province revealed in a press statement to a local pro-regime broadcaster in March 2021.

Law 10 poses a clear threat to Yarmouk camp residents’ properties, Houshan said, as it “changes the legal status of the real estate from solely owned to jointly owned and gives the administrative unit a 50 percent share of the property for public benefit.” In addition, “it gives the real estate developer ownership over the project lands, threatening the property of owners who hold official title deeds and undermining the ownership of those who have ordinary title deeds.”

Properties of displaced and missing people at risk

In 2013, Sami Abu Issa fled Yarmouk camp for Lebanon, and from there to France, where he currently lives with his family. He told Syria Direct that he had left behind four commercial spaces and a five-story residential building in the camp that “were all destroyed as a result of the military operations, with the exception of one of the commercial spaces that is still standing.” 

He said that logically, “the municipality should prepare an inventory of the properties, keep real estate records and preserve our properties, especially for those of us who are living abroad and are unable to go back to our country.” However, he added, “it seems that the state is reluctant to protect our property and is instead creating legal mechanisms to appropriate it.”

“Basically, they want to take the iron and ransack the remains of our homes,” Abu Issa said. Four other sources that spoke to Syria Direct felt similarly. 

Abu Issa fears that the rubble of his properties could be removed in his absence, which could damage his property if “one of my neighbors in the building infringes on it, a corrupt official states that my shop is on the verge of collapse in order to take the iron from it, or if the government committee itself accepts a bribe and violates my rights in the interests of some other person or party.”

On this, the lawyer in Damascus stressed that the removal of rubble from some of the camp’s streets and neighborhoods by the province and Yarmouk camp municipality “constitutes a violation of some rights” that opens the door to greater violations in the future, such as “the building of some properties at the expense of the properties of others.”

Making it easier to ransack homes

Five months ago, the family of Palestinian journalist Amal al-Dimashqi, who grew up in Yarmouk camp, removed the rubble from their five-story building in Yarmouk and left it in the street, in line with instructions from the municipality. The municipality was to then come and remove it. 

The family paid for the removal of the rubble from the partially damaged building themselves, thinking that this would speed up their return to the camp and access to the property following restoration, “but this has still not happened,” al-Dimashqi told Syria Direct.

Weeks after the rubble was removed and left outside, al-Dimashqi entered the camp to inspect her family’s building building and was shocked to find that “the first and second floors had no ceiling, part of the staircase had been demolished with the iron taken from it, and neither the walls nor pillars remained.”

Faced with this theft, which occurred despite the tight security imposed by the regime on the camp and it preventing residents from entering without security approvals, al-Dimashqi joked that it felt like “the municipality wanted to clear the rubble to make it easier to ransack [homes], take iron and steal whatever else can be taken.”

Al-Dimashqi had consulted several security branches, over the course of a full month, until she managed to obtain security approval authorizing her to enter the camp. As part of the application process, she was asked about her family’s origins and whether there were any missing people in her family. She added that “anyone who has a missing person in their family will not be given approval to enter the camp.”

Um Imran felt similarly to al-Dimashqi, saying “the government’s rubble-removal decisions are for the sake of stealing the iron from homes.” She added that it seems her home will remain in its current state until the rubble is removed, as “the cost of rebuilding is over a million Syrian lira [$26,600]” and she doesn’t have “enough to pay the rent at the end of this month.” 

In theory, Law 3 of 2018 “resolves the issue of iron and rubble,” the Damascus-based lawyer said. Once a judge determines the area from which rubble is to be removed, “an assessment is made of the amount of iron and cement that shall be reused, and then it goes out to public tender. Once the contract is awarded to a contractor based on the survey plan and the cost, the demolition is entrusted to them and carried out in the presence of a committee overseeing the work,” he said. “The money from the tender is distributed among the property owners in the determined area, which provides meager support for the residents.”

However, this law has still not been implemented, despite the camp being under regime control for almost five years.

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English.

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