Attempts by civil society organizations to address Syria’s informal settlements issue
The informal housing sector had witnessed a significant increase in most Syrian provinces before the uprising in 2011, as more than 40 percent of the population was living in unregulated areas, according to the Syrian regime government’s 2018 statements.
The extent of the actual spread of informal settlements is still unknown, due to the continuous internal displacement waves between the Syrian regions, especially in northern Syria, where the displaced people live in unserved areas of unstable legal status.
Based on the definition of the United Nations (UN), informal settlements are residential areas whose housing units have been constructed on unregulated land or outside the government’s urban development plans.
According to the UN, these areas often lack access to basic services.
During the destruction of houses in the neighborhoods that opposed the Syrian regime, many property documents were destroyed as a result of military operations inside the slums of the Eastern Ghouta of the Syrian capital, Damascus, Homs province, and eastern Aleppo city.
This threatened the residents of these areas to lose their property rights, in conjunction with the regime’s issuance of urban renewal laws that deny Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) of informal housing areas from returning to their original homes.
The regime’s government has initiated its plans to establish regulated areas in some of the slums that witnessed massive destruction, such as the “Yarmouk Camp” area, southern Damascus, under Law No. 23 of 2015.
Such plans would inflict damage to the violators who built their property on private or state-owned lands without obtaining alternative housing, after the issuance of the organizational plans.
The regime’s government has also announced a regulatory plan for the al-Qaboun district, north of Damascus.
Attempts to address the informal settlements phenomenon
On 23 June, 12 Syrian civil organizations, including “The Day After” organization (TDA), participated in a dialog initiative to create a comprehensive vision of the informal housing problem and the mechanisms for dealing with it.
The initiative was entitled “Informal Settlements in Syria… Reasons and Solutions” in an attempt by the Syrian civil society to fully understand this phenomenon in its historical, legal, and administrative aspects.
According to the TDA’s coordinator of the initiative, Ahmed Taha, the dialog initiative was held online as a teleconference meeting and focused on the reasons for the informal settlements in Syria, based on Judge Anwar Majni’s explanation of the slums phenomenon in its historical context.
The most prominent reasons for the emergence of slums in Syria, according to Majni, were political reasons after the displacement of thousands of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights’ residents in 1967.
Besides, the Palestinian refugees who left for Syria and settled in unregulated areas for long periods also constituted another reason for the informal settlements problem, according to Majni.
Moreover, the unbalanced development policies between the countryside and the cities were part of the causes of the spread of informal settlements, according to Majni.
He said that administrative and service development projects were mainly concentrated in the city, excluding the countryside in Syria.
According to Majni, this resulted in rural-to-urban drift, as the countryside residents left their areas to the cities.
The population influx to Syria’s main city centers is also a major cause of the informal housing phenomenon. On average, the slums constitute 15 to 20 percent of all Syria (rural-urban) areas, while 25 to 30 percent of informal housing is located in city centers.
This ratio rises to more than 40 percent in main city centers, according to a 2019 study by Syrian Judge Khaled al-Helou, entitled “laws and Regulations of Housing, Land, and Property Rights (HLP).”
Syrian property Laws failed to keep pace with the population growth
The second focus of the meeting, which was led by Judge Hussam al-Shihnah, was on characterizing the phenomenon of informal housing under Syrian laws and regulations that failed to keep pace with the population growth, and the growing need for housing, which in turn increased the number of housing violations.
It discussed laws that were described as a “usurpation of property,” according to Taha.
These laws mainly target the residents of unregulated informal residential areas that were established in areas unfit for construction within the absence of government urban development planning.
As for the third focus of the meeting, it included a dialog session between the participants of organizations and activists of real estate issues to explain the views of local Syrian administration units regarding the informal settlements problem, presented by engineer Firas Masri.
Masri shared several files with the participants through which he explained the most important real estate terms. The files showed the development process of Syria’s slums refereeing them to three technical determinants (engineering, legal, and political).
Masri also addressed the solutions to the informal housing phenomenon by providing alternative housing and conducting social surveys.
According to Taha, the proper understanding of the informal settlements phenomenon, and the accurate diagnosis and assessment helps to find solutions to the complexity of the real estate sector due to its associated regulations.
The teleconference meeting also discussed the seriousness of the current regulation plans of slum areas, especially in the Yarmouk Camp neighborhood and “North of the Railway” neighborhood in al-Raqqa province, north-eastern Syria.
In the last nine years of conflict, more than 12 million Syrians (refugees and internally displaced) left their houses, many of whom lost their legal documents that prove their title rights of houses, lands, and properties.
Many people did not have legal documents, while others had theirs stolen or destroyed due to the bombing.
A demand for a new international mechanism to document property ownership
The meeting’s most prominent recommendation was the demand for suspending all confiscation and property seizers through the political process of the future transitional stage in Syria.
The meeting also called for the suspension of land development zones’ procedures since March 2011.
The meeting’s outcomes included a research paper that discusses the informal settlements issue in Syria and ways of handling it in the future.
According to Taha, the participants appealed to the UN and other international actors active in the Syrian file to place housing and property rights at the center of the political process during the future transitional process of Syria’s legal system.
It called for establishing an independent international mechanism to document property claims of Syrian refugees and forcibly displaced people.
According to Taha, the study paper of Masri recommended searching for creative ways to prove ownership through establishing associations for informal settlements occupants and support them.
The participants called for finding consensus solutions for the “Syrian Interim Government (SIG)” which is the responsible authority in the opposition factions’ controlled areas, northern Syria.
These laws preserve state and private property, as the regime’s regulations are considered null in these areas, and the establishment of informal housing cannot be stopped there.
The meeting also recommended the monitoring of what is happening in some areas of northeast Syria, where the de facto authority there is neither controlled by the Syrian regime nor the SIG.
According to Taha, any regulatory action in these areas could lead to “demographic changes” to the diversity of ethnic groups.
Taha called on Syrian displaced people and refugees to keep notices of water and electricity bills, which are considered as proof of ownership in the informal settlement areas.
Raising the awareness of Syrians on the real-estate problem
The Syrian civil society organizations attempt through these events and meetings to create a comprehensive concept of the real estate problem in Syria and the mechanisms to handle it, according to Taha.
He said these meetings by civil organizations aim at exchanging experiences and information to ensure coordination, integration, and cooperation among their members.
Besides, such events would enhance the understanding of the rights and constitutional structure created by the Syrian regime in real estate and follow up on new regulations on property expropriation.
They also aim to organize initiatives to raise awareness among Syrians affected by property rights and housing issues and support their cause in international forums.
The independent Syrian civil organizations are also building a database to index the regime’s government’s real estate laws and analyze them to reach a better and more comprehensive vision to deal with these laws in the future.
According to Taha, another role for these events is to follow up and document official and unofficial property confiscations throughout Syria.
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