The Syrian government is set to seize the property of millions of Syrians who fled their homes, unless they return to claim them by presenting ownership deeds to local authorities.
Under a law introduced in April, the 6 million Syrians who fled their homes to escape the carnage and 7 million displaced to other parts of the war-torn country have until May 10 to register their properties or forfeit their homes. “The remaining plots will be auctioned,” according to legislation known as Law No. 10.
Government-connected investors from President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite Muslim sect are likely to reap massive profits.
European officials at a donor conference this week described the law as “punitive.” The German foreign ministry Friday issued a statement saying
it saw the law as an attempt to change property ownership “to the benefit of the regime and its supporters and hinder the return of a huge number
At a recent conference in Brussels, donors, mainly from Western and Gulf countries, pledged $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Syria and neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, which are sheltering the bulk of the Syrians who fled over the borders to escape vicious fighting.
The collective pledges fall far short of the $7 billion that U.N. officials say is needed. And with the increasing likelihood that refugees will be afraid to return, or will have nothing to return to because of the new law, the international community is likely to need far more funding to shelter millions of Syrians for the foreseeable future.
U.N. officials say only a small fraction of the refugees and displaced will even have the necessary documentation. Many Syrian land registries have been destroyed, often purposely to help depopulate Sunni areas and put into effect population transfers, they say.
For the past year, many Syrians have been debating whether to risk returning home. They sought safety in neighboring states and Europe, either to maintain resistance against Assad or to escape the airstrikes and barrel bombs, as well as fighting in their war-torn country.
With the balance of battlefield power swinging in favor of the Assad government, they have been asking what the future holds for them.
Rebel fighters and opposition activists and politicians say they can only picture a "Syria-less" future for themselves. They and their families face the prospect of long-term, even permanent exile, they say, because they won't ever be able to return as long as Assad remains in power.
Syrian NGOs and relief workers, too, say there’s no future for them while Assad is in Damascus or his Baath party is in control.
“In my case, if Assad remains in power, I would either be thrown into prison for the rest of my life or would become another name on the international lists of victims and the disappeared,” said Mohammad Noor, who has been studying in Turkey.
In dozens of interviews VOA has conducted in the past few weeks with Syrians based outside their country, those active in rebel militias or the political opposition and civil society organizations, or who have relatives connected to such groups, are the most adamant in saying they won’t be able to return.
Aside from the risks, many in the opposition say they couldn’t contemplate living in a country ruled by Assad on moral grounds — a conviction that’s only deepened with time during a conflict that has seen scorched-earth bombing of rebel-held towns and alleged chemical warfare use.
“How could I live in a country ruled by Bashar al-Assad? He’s responsible for destroying more than half of Aleppo, killing half a million Syrians and forcing millions of others to flee the country or their homes?” queried an activist who uses the name Khudur. “I can’t return and live in a country ruled by a criminal."
Others unconnected with political or military activity, though, have started to return, but in small numbers, pushed to go because of harsh conditions in neighboring countries, say NGOs working with refugees. The returns result from unsafe and precarious living conditions in asylum and are not a sign that the situation in Syria has improved, according to the Durable Solutions Platform, an NGO-led research initiative.
Increasing vulnerability, poverty and desperation are driving the few who are returning to do so, despite the danger and hazards they court back in their home country, six NGOs warned in a report, Dangerous Ground — Syria's Refugees Face an Uncertain Future.
Push factors are mounting, the NGOs say, on Syrians to return against a backdrop of increased anti-refugee rhetoric and policies, with governments openly contemplating the return of refugees to the country.
“The prevailing interest in securing the return of refugees is undermining their safety and dignity in neighboring countries, creating push factors and increasing the likelihood of forced returns in 2018. It also threatens to limit the options for making a life beyond the region through resettlement or other safe and legal routes,” the NGOs, including the Danish Refugee Council and Save the Children, warned in the report, published in February.
The governments of neighboring countries had planned for — or at least hoped for — a brief Syrian war and refugee crisis, with most of the refugees returning to their homes. It has been only in the past 18 months that the Turks have started to develop plans for what to do with the 2 million Syrians in Turkey.
In Lebanon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has promised there will be no forced returns, but there’s mounting political pressure for that to happen.
Refugees have become a key issue in current election campaigning in Lebanon. Christian and Shiite politicians, including Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, say it is time all Syrian refugees return home, arguing that the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Syrian refugee population threatens Lebanon's national identity and sectarian mix.
U.N. officials warn that Syrian refugees are facing increasing harassment and mistreatment in efforts to pressure them to go home. According to the U.N.'s refugee agency, UNHCR, 1,300 Syrian families were evicted from settlements in the Bekaa Valley last year, with most evictions ordered by Lebanese military intelligence.
Opinion is divided about whether most Syrian refugees will return or try to stay put in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, or further afield. Syrian activists had predicted that "ordinary" Syrians in Europe or the United States would not return, but those living in camps and refugees in countries surrounding Syria would be more tempted to return because of a lack of options, if the shelling and airstrikes stop.
If their homes and property are confiscated, however, then a major pull factor will have been eliminated. They won't go back, unless the host countries start deporting them, activists predict.
“Facing mounting social and economic difficulties, refugees feel trapped between host countries that do not want them and a Syria to which they cannot return,” according to a study released last week by the Carnegie Middle East Center, a research institution.