Residents Blocked From Returning To Syria

On October 16, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a statement detailing how the Syrian government has been actively blocking displaced residents from returning to their homes in former rebel zones.  

Under Law 10, which was passed in April 2018, the government planned for the creation and establishment of “redevelopment” zones. This raised concerns as to the possibility of the government dispossessing private property without due process and adequate compensation. Speaking to HRW, Syrians who were attempting to regain  access their properties reported that the government had imposed restrictions on access in Darayya; in Qaboun, the government either restricted access or even demolished their property. In the words of HRW, the fact that the government is preventing displaced residents from returning their homes “without an apparently valid security reason” and without providing alternatives makes these restrictions arbitrary, effectively amounting to “forced displacement.”  

Three residents of Darayya, who were interviewed by HRW, reported that the town has been completely barred from entrance for two years. One of the interviewees stated that the government would turn returning residents away at checkpoints, with the excuse of “security reasons.” Two years later, Darayaa is still barred from entrance, while other areas that had been restricted due to security threats have been effectively reopened. The situation calls into question whether the Syrian government is blocking access to such areas due to some residents’ prior affiliation with anti-government groups. HRW says that if whole communities are being deprived of their property and suffer human rights’ violations because of a small group of people, the government’s actions may as well classify as a form of collective punishment. 

Lama Fakih, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, claimed that, although “Russia and Syria are calling on people to return to attract reconstruction funding, the reality is much different; […] under the guise of a notorious property rights law, the Syrian government is actually blocking residents from returning.” In the words of Fakih, the Syrian government is clearly “signaling that despite official rhetoric inviting Syrians ‘home,’ they do not want refugees or displaced persons back,” The demolition of civilians’ homes and restriction of access to the affected areas is an indisputable indication the government’s real intentions. 

The official response of the Syrian government to the concerns raised with regard to Law 10 has been to dismiss them as a “disinformation campaign.”  The government claimed that they need to destroy tunnels used by anti-government groups and regulate illegal settlements. Syria’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva said: “this law comes within the framework of the Reconstruction Program, and has an organizational character aimed at regulating slum areas in Syria, especially in light of the destruction of many of the areas that were controlled by terrorists.”

The HRW is aiming to spread awareness with regard to the issue; the fact that civilians are being prevented from returning to their homes in Syria constitutes a potential breach of human rights. Fakih argued that “donors considering funding reconstruction to facilitate returns should be put on notice” about the rights violations occurring in redevelopment areas. International Humanitarian Law prohibits “wanton destruction” of property, and deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects. As HRW noted, “the scale of the demolitions and the fact that the government had retaken the area for at least a year indicates that these demolitions are likely disproportionate, and may be war crimes.”  International law also guarantees freedom of movement to all individuals who have entered the country legally. The restrictions on entry to Darayya and Qaboun without a legitimate reason violates Syria’s obligation to guarantee freedom of movement.

The magnitude of the refugee crisis resulting from the conflict in Syria is reported by the UN to count 6 million Syrians displaced within the country and nearly 5.5 million refugees outside Syria; the crisis cannot come anywhere close to a resolution so long as displaced civilians are prevented from returning to their homes.  Although the War in Syria is not over, the displaced civilians who feel confident to return to areas in the process of redevelopment and have the desire to repossess their property should be allowed to do so. Unfortunately, according to HRW, the restrictions on access, demolitions, confiscation of property, and the Syrian government’s continued disregard for the civilian population not only affects the displaced people’s ability to return to their areas of origin, but also constitutes a serious strike to their morale:  as one resident told HRW, “they took our children, our blood and now our property – what is left for us to return to?”

Media reports have implied that residents have not been able to return to the affected zones because of damages to buildings and lack of basic utilities; and yet in other cases, people were able to return to areas that did not meet such preconditions. The evidence has raised reasonable concerns as to the real rationale behind the government’s actions. With all of these concerns, donors and organizations helping in areas that have been retaken by the Syrian government should ensure that reconstruction funds do not contribute to violations of property rights of displaced people and serious breaches of International Humanitarian Law.