Syrians are likely to file more than 2 million lawsuits seeking restitution for lost and damaged property, experts said Tuesday, emphasizing the need to work on a solution even while the civil war continues.
The conflict will enter its eighth year next month, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half of the prewar population of about 23 million from their homes.
Few know when or whether they will be able to return and reclaim their property, much of which was not registered before the war began, experts said.
"The main issue is the destruction and damage to property, but a lack of documents and uncertainty over home ownership are also creating huge challenges," said Laura Cunial, a legal and housing expert at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
"If you're going to have 2 million lawsuits in the courts when the war is over, that's going to be taking a long time if nothing is done about it before," she told delegates at the first Arab Land Conference in Dubai.
The war has destroyed many Syrian land registries, while a large proportion of displaced people have lost their ownership documents or lacked them in the first place, Cunial said.
Syria had started to digitize land records just before the conflict began, leaving a huge documentation gap and complicating efforts to evict illegal tenants from properties.
Nearly half of Syrian refugees surveyed by the NRC and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said that their home had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair by the war, Cunial said.
Just 9 percent had their property title deeds with them and in good condition, according to the survey published last year.
Experts said even though postconflict property restitution was a right under international law, it could prove costly and complicated if a country waited until fighting ceased.
"At this moment we don't know whether there will be a special process for housing, land and property issues after the war," said Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR deputy regional representative, who has worked with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. "It will be critical to have in place a dedicated, equitable and transparent process to resolve these issues in a timely manner."
The situation is further complicated by Syrian property law's complexity, including cultural practices that led to the transfer of title deeds within families over generations, and a land administration system dating back to the Ottoman empire.
Despite its importance, resolving property ownership was just one of many steps to peace, said Javier Molina, senior land tenure expert at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.
"Land is not just an economic asset but a cultural one, too, and that has to be recognized," he said.