Concrete camps for displaced people in northern Syria… Real-estate issues waiting to be solved
Saleh Malas – Zeinab Masri
The problem of temporary housing is recurrent in all camps of internally displaced people (IDPs). It includes the displaced Syrians, who merely dream of having “temporary” homes in northern Syria. These people seek to achieve stability in an unstable political and security situation. They dream of having concrete housing units, while hoping to return to their original cities and properties, each depending on their circumstances and locations.
In northern Syria, and along the border strip with Turkey, there are more than 1000 camps that differ in their structure. Some of these camps have turned into informal settlements scattered in narrow geographical areas, threatening to create a real estate related problem if these camps continue to expand without control and regulatory mechanisms.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with officials from local authorities in northern Syria and Syrian legal experts, the mechanisms of choosing lands to build concrete camps and the legality of building those camps on the border areas. The file will also touch on the possibility of Syria facing new informal settlement problems due to the construction of these concrete camps with the help of foreign associations and organizations while lacking legal and engineering regulations.
In Idlib… IDPs camps in farmlands
Driven by his financial need, Mahmoud Halabi, a resident of the village of Kafr Aruq in the north-western countryside of Idlib, offered his land on the highway connecting the villages of Kafr Aruq and Kafr Daryan for sale. A group of the village’s displaced residents bought Halabi’s land to build a camp and live in it.
Halabi sold his six dunums of land (6000 square meters) for 1,200 USD per dunum, and as he had a title deed or the so-called (green tabo), he managed to document the sale in the real estate records in Harem city. The land’s ownership was transferred to the buyers legally, according to what Halabi told Enab Baladi.
“A group of people partnered to buy the land and built their camp on it,” Halabi said. He added, “before the sale, they informed me of their intention to build a camp, and I was eager to sell.”
Halabi pointed out his prior knowledge of the buyers ‘intention to build a camp on his land, indicating that he did not use it for investment purposes because it was a rocky land unsuitable for agriculture.
Unlike Halabi’s land, Ali Awad, a resident of the same village, owns an agricultural land of about eight dunums (8000 square meters), located between the villages of Kafr Aruq and Kafr Daryan.
In 2019, a group of displaced people rented Awad’s land for 500 USD a year. They built concrete residential buildings instead of tents on it, which caused damage to the land from which Awad used to obtain crops, according to what he said to Enab Baladi.
In north-western regions
Associations build concrete housing units on allocation contracts
On 22 September, the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH) announced that it had completed the first phase of building the “Peace Village” in the al-Zouf area in Idlib’s western countryside. The İHH completed the construction of 50 concrete housing units and delivered the finished units to the orphans’ families in the area.
According to the official website of the İHH, the organization started building the village in two phases to build 100 cement houses in the al-Zouf area. The İHH completed the first stage and is working on finishing the second stage houses’ construction, including 50 housing units.
The İHH website quoted the Information Official of the organization’s work in Syria, Salim Toson, saying that the village is built in a location close to the Turkish-Syrian border. Toson said each house’s general area is 40 square meters and includes two rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a toilet, and a small garden surrounding it. Toson also indicated that the organization is planning to build a school and a mosque in the village.
The “Peace Village” is one of about 30 housing projects supervised by the İHH in the northern regions of Syria, as an alternative to the displaced people’s tents and provides the IDPs with their minimum humanitarian needs.
Who is building the concrete camps?
Residential projects, blocks, and concrete housing units have emerged as alternatives to the makeshift tents of displaced people in Idlib governorate and northern Aleppo countryside. These camps’ number has increased recently, raising questions about the motives of the parties behind their establishment.
Enab Baladi investigated the mechanism for establishing these camps and the authorities that supervise them. Based on information from civilians, associations, and local authorities operating in northern Syria, Enab Baladi observed that many international, Arab, and local associations are working in agreement with local councils and authorities operating in the north-western regions of Syria to build these camps.
Moreover, displaced people have purchased or rented lands from their owners. Other landowners in those areas may donate their land as an endowment for the benefit of an association to build houses and concrete blocks on them for displaced people. Nevertheless, these people are not taking into account the nature of the land and whether it is intended for construction or not.
Not a sale transaction, but rather an allocation contract
The head of the state property department in the “Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)” operating in Idlib, Adnan al-Qassem, said that the SSG does not grant state-owned lands to associations, but rather allocates state property to the ministry of development and humanitarian affairs for the benefit of an organization or association to establish a camp, whether concrete housing blocks or tents.
Al-Qassem confirmed that the association or organization has no share in the land. The land’s use is instead allocated to the ministry of development. He added that granting the land to the association is not for sale, lease or as a donation, but instead as an allocation, which means that the “real estate plot” remains state property, and the allocation is only for the use of the property, and that is subject to some terms.
The purpose of the allocation, duration, and the rest of the details are specified in the allocation decision.
Al-Qassem pointed out that most of the lands allotted from state property are mountainous and rocky lands, and there is no agricultural land allocation. Still, a committee from the state property department and the ministry of development survey the land before allocating it.
Similarly, a committee from the ministry of agriculture of the SSG surveys private agricultural lands to approve or refuse the allocation, depending on the land’s nature.
As for the fate of the buildings designated as camps, they are not included in the regulatory plans. The “department of displaced people” in the SSG’s services directorate deals with the camp’s utilities, including roads, water, and sanitation, whether the camp consists of buildings or tents.
“Department of humanitarian affairs” supervises the servicing of the camps
The department of humanitarian affairs in the ministry of development and humanitarian affairs of the “Salvation Government” supervises humanitarian organizations’ engineering studies in the city’s camps. The ministry works on establishing housing blocks and equipping serviced camps with residential blocks and rehabilitated lands, according to what it publishes through its formal identifiers on the Internet.
According to the head of the camps’ affairs directorate in the SSG, Ahmed al-Hassan, the problem of the random establishment of camps becomes more complicated during periods of massive displacement.
Al-Hassan told Enab Baladi that the SSG has limited the organizations’ violations of random buildings to house the displaced. He added the construction work taking place nowadays is for the replacement of old tents.
As for the lands, the displaced people used to contact the landowner directly, then they started reviewing the directorate to request services for the camps. The directorate would ask them to provide documentation papers, such as the landowner’s approval and a lease contract.
Al-Hassan added that the request for service delivery has been reorganized in a form approved by the camps directorate, and in cases where these papers are not available, there will be a compulsory rental allowance for the landowner, taking into account the nature of the land, whether it is level, sloping or steep ground.
The director indicated that the state-owned lands do not belong to the directorate of camp affairs but rather belong to the state property department in the SSG, pointing out that the rocky lands are chosen for building the camps, while the arable lands are excluded from construction.
Al-Hassan stressed that some violations were reported to the concerned authorities, to follow them, referring to the regulation of land rentals according to standards approved by the directorate, so that the burdens on the displaced people do not get heavier and the right of the landowner is not undervalued.
Azaz city’s camps managed by the Turkish “AFAD” organization
The director of the information office in the local council of Azaz city, north-western Aleppo, Said Akkash, told Enab Baladi that there is only one camp managed by the council, which is the “Iwaa” camp built on a real estate area owned by the council, for it is state property.
He added that the camp is a temporary center set up to receive new arrivals of displaced people. Akkash pointed out that they, as a local council, do not have any information about the rest of the camps because they are managed by the “Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD)” affiliated to the Turkish Prime Ministry, denying the council’s link to the camps.
Memorandums of understanding
In northeastern Aleppo, specifically in the city of al-Bab, a group of camps were built with the support of the “Qatar Red Crescent” organization on public property lands, according to the head of the city’s local council, Jamal Othman.
Othman told Enab Baladi that this campsite consists of two neighboring camps. The first one includes 119 housing units, whose construction has been completed, while the second is still under construction.
Othman added, it is a “formal” camp established after the approval of the local council, and most of its residents are displaced people of orphans and people with disabilities.
Othman continued saying that most of the other camps in the city are located on public property, consisting of groups of tents set up by a group of displaced people, which, later on, the council followed up and documented the names of the displaced persons residing in them to provide them with support and services.
In addition, there is a gathering in the village of Susyan in the city of al-Bab, which was established on public property by displaced people from the al-Ghouta area. This gathering was established with the “Qatar Red Crescent” project and in coordination with the city’s local council, under a memorandum of understanding and the council’s approval.
The head of the council talked about the “al-Sharqiyah” camp, which was set up by displaced people from Syria’s eastern regions and who rented the land from its owner. The council provides this camp with all services, including water, sanitation, electricity, and in-kind aid. Othman also indicated that the council provides all its services for free and does not impose any rents on the displaced people.
Land selection criteria
In Jarablus city, northeastern Aleppo, there are several considerations for choosing the lands on which the camps are to be built. Most prominent is the proximity to the city, making it possible for basic services near the camp’s site to be delivered to the camp. However, the area has to be suitable for building these camps, according to the head of the city’s local council, Abd Khalil.
Khalil talked to Enab Baladi about the mechanism for selecting lands for construction, saying that construction is carried out primarily on state land, agricultural association lands, and the like.
Khalil added that local associations purchased lands at their own expense and built residential villages when state lands were not available.
He pointed out that alongside the local associations working in the city to build camps, Arab associations with international support, in addition to the AFAD organization, are working on the issue of building concrete camps, as the latter built several camps in the region in coordination with the council and under memorandums of understanding.
These memorandums are concluded between the organization and the council, by which a decision is made to allocate state property lands in favor of the organization to establish a camp or build a residential village.
Khalil asserted that the granted lands are not sold but rather allocated to the organization, according to a decision stipulating that “the city council of … decided to allocate an area of… from the land located in… in favor of the ….organization… in order to build a residential village…”.
As for private property, Khalil said, the purchase of the land is made directly by the organization or association, and then a memorandum of understanding is signed specifying the establishment of the camp, its future, the housing mechanism, and other details.
Regarding the mechanism for selecting the displaced people to live in the camps, Khalil concluded that their selection is based on the purpose behind establishing the camp, indicating that neither the council nor the concerned organizations receive any fees or rents paid by the displaced persons.
If the camp is designed for orphans and widows, then it is allocated to these people regardless of the governorate or the region from which they were displaced. If the camp was established during “crises,” such as the recent displacement crisis from the southern countryside of Idlib and Aleppo, then the newly displaced people from those areas will live in the camps, according to Khalil.
The establishment of new informal camps portends a real estate problem…
Legal deficiencies in concluded contracts
There are many informal camps in northern Syria, whose geographical area expands with each new wave of displacement, according to what the Director of the “Syria Response Coordination Group (SRCG), Mohammad Hallaj, said to Enab Baladi.
Informal camps are not built under the supervision of specialized organizations, and not based on an engineering study determining how suitable the land is for construction, according to Hallaj.
According to lawyer Ahmed Sawan, the makeshift camps there will become like those surrounding the capital Damascus, “because the buildings are primitive.” Sawan added, “the urgent housing needs led to their increase in a crazy and scattered manner and in a way that is impossible to organize.” “This, as a result, has created a new real estate problem in Syria that is no less dangerous than the informal camps in several Syrian cities, Sawan said.
The solution, in this case, according to the lawyer, is that municipalities and local councils should assume their role and allocate specific sites for building camps according to well-studied engineering plans.
Besides, any temporary residential building must obtain the prior approval of the competent local authorities. According to the lawyers’ recommendation, the local councils should facilitate granting these approvals without burdening people with large sums because the high fees force everyone to resort to random illegal construction.
The Syrian regime’s government is considered one of the major responsible parties behind the creation of slum areas. It did not grant building permits to owners of some lands included in the regulated areas in the first place. The regime’s government also granted some of the authority’s influential people building permits in these areas and assisted them in making the municipalities and governorates turn a blind eye on their prosecution during the building process.
Sawan warned that this could happen again in northern Syria, and that is why the local authorities there must cooperate with organizations and associations specialized in building concrete camps and facilitate granting building permits if such permits are in compliance with regulatory and engineering standards.
“Pacta Sunt Servanda”
The laws regulating the business of selling, buying, or renting lands in the border areas in northern Syria for the construction of cement camps are not applicable under the umbrella of authorities with internationally recognized legal legitimacy, but rather under the de facto presence of local authorities. Therefore any contract concluded between two parties to have a legal effect on the area of a plot of land should be made under the principle of “pacta sunt servanda,” meaning the contract must be respected.
The future of camps built with cement blocks in northern Syria is related to the nature of the contractual relationship between the owner of the land and the party that established the camps, and to what extent it is legal, according to what Sawan told Enab Baladi.
The contracts must be registered in the land registry, in compliance with the general legal provision that stipulates that property rights are transferred once they are registered in the cadastre, as the contract (its subject matter) is, in these cases, the real estate, according to Sawan.
It is the “de facto” authorities’ responsibility to supervise the land registry and organize the preservation of property transfers through it.
However, the parties to the land sale and purchase contracts can obtain a court ruling in this regard, to ensure their agreed mutual rights and obligations, or to prove the transaction of the sale and purchase under notarized power of attorney, as recommended by Sawan.
The problem in such cases lies in the fact that the process of documenting the transfer of property in courts or the land registry takes place under the supervision of illegitimate authorities, and it is most likely that these material facts will not carry any evidential weight in the future for them to be legalized.
According to Sawan, the transfer of real estate ownership based on contracts and registrations in areas under the control of de facto authorities will be left to the governmental authorities’ will, during any political settlement that may take place in the future.
There are thousands of similar difficult cases still pending in Daraa governorate, southern Syria, after the Syrian regime forces took control of the area in 2018, as no decision has been made regarding these cases between the regime, the rights owners, and the Russian guarantor. “The issue is “very complicated,” according to Sawan.
legal owners will have their certified properties back,
however long it takes
According to Sawan, if the owner sells his land to a certain party that will use it to build concrete camps, the plot of land becomes the buyer’s exclusive property, who can make use of his purchase as he wishes in the future. However, if the landowner leases his land for a long period, he can recover it in its original condition, free of buildings and occupiers afterward when the contract expires.
Sawan added that “whoever seizes a piece of land is not entitled to lease it because he is not the owner, and the lease contract is invalid,” saying that the owner in this case, whether he is a natural person or a legal person, can recover his plot of land no matter how long it takes. Sawan added that a property that is properly registered in the land registry under legally legitimate authority cannot be transferred to another party no matter how long ago it had been registered, even if the area’s political power has changed.
As Sawan says, the ownership of camps built on state-owned lands in northern Syria will return to the government entity that owns the land originally, once the camps are removed. Thus, the government or the municipality has the right to claim fees from the party constructing on those lands to compensate for the occupancy years.
Conditions for foreign ownership of Syrian lands
Any person wishing to sell a piece of land he owns to a foreign organization to allocate it to build cement camps can do so for the Syrian laws permit foreigners to own real estate in Syria according to specific conditions.
Sawan explained that Law No. 11 of 2011 allows non-Syrians to own real estate in Syria, whether they are natural or legal persons, in accordance with Article 1, which stipulates that “the Council of Ministers has the right to make exceptions to the provisions of the law by granting the right to own property to non-Syrians,” meaning that the owner may not sell his property to any foreign party without obtaining approval from the Council of Ministers.
According to Sawan, if there are any contracts concluded between foreign organizations and the landowners, then this sale is conditional on obtaining approval from the Syrian Prime Ministry, as ownership cannot be transferred without having this authorization. If the foreign organization registers the lands, then it may become the owner of the lands; otherwise, such lands will continue to be used as campsites as long as needed. When the camps are removed, the sale then becomes null, and the land can be returned to its owner in exchange for the original price he had received.
In the border areas, buying and leasing lands by foreigners depends on how far the land is located from the borders, which is determined by a decision issued by the Minister of Defense. Thus, the relevant ministry is required to decide on the licensing applications stipulated under the Foreign Ownership Law within 60 days of receiving the request. The rejection of an application is considered final, as no methods of appeal or review can change the initial decision.
Architectural discrepancies due to random construction of camps
Many camps for displaced people are scattered chaotically in north-western Syria areas, some of which contain tents with cement floors, and others are ready-made concrete blocks or rooms built on foundations.
The representative of the Aleppo branch of the Association of the Central Union of the Free Syrian Engineers, Yehya Nanan, told Enab Baladi that the random construction of the camps destroys the urban fabric of cities and distorts public landscapes. He added that these camps constitute a “danger” that may threaten the area at the urban, architectural, economic, and social levels.
Nanan stated that these camps are also difficult to control by the authorities and can only be dealt with by extracting demolition decisions according to the existing laws that guarantee the owner’s right and the state.
The engineer added that informal camps leave the authorities confounded in terms of service delivery and infrastructure, which is basically chaotic as services are provided sequentially and using different methods, including grass-roots work.
The negligence of local councils, their lack of vision, and the absence of reliable competencies to design the construction plans affect the ability to provide basic services such as drinking water, sanitation, electricity, and other services.
All this because the camps nowadays are being built “smoothly and naturally” under the local councils’ watchful eyes, which are directly responsible for the camps, without any acceptable building standards in terms of architecture, construction, and sanitation.
However, the legally built camps or those organized ones are constructed according to a topographical plan generating, in turn, an organizational plan that takes into account architectural standards in terms of constructed areas, green areas, and services. In addition to the nature of the land, its orientations, and the main drainage outlets’ locations, making sure not to harm agricultural lands as damaging this type of land is considered a threat to food security in the northern region.
Nanan pointed out that building camps on agricultural land is very costly from an economic point of view, explaining that replacing the soil for the construction of foundations necessitates large sums of money, sometimes amounting to one-quarter of the construction cost of a square meter. Construction activities on such lands are carried out randomly, without a proper structural study or a proper implementation, which may cause the building to crack and threaten the public’s safety.
The ongoing construction of camps causes the loss of vast agricultural areas, especially the plains of Aleppo and northern Idlib, which are considered among the most fertile lands in Syria, meaning that food security in this region may be seriously jeopardized in the future.
Nanan advised the authorities to build camps in mountainous and wooded landscapes, which are usually not suitable for agricultural activities, as entire cities can be established on this type of land to host all the informal camps at low costs.
He also advised local councils to rely on and empower specialized engineers to transform these camps into productive and organized cities.
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