Turkish housing projects in northern Syria: legality, ownership and purpose

Construction workers in the “City of Hope” project in border Azaz town in northern Syria - 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Turkish housing projects in northern Syria: legality, ownership and purpose

Construction workers in the “City of Hope” project in border Azaz town in northern Syria - 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Construction workers in the “City of Hope” project in border Azaz town in northern Syria - 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

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Saleh Malas | Nasibe Alloni

One of the most prominent works of relief organizations, local or foreign, in the north of Syria and within the objectives of improving the environment of displacement is the process of sheltering by building housing complexes within a covered area, where about four million displaced people live, including those who live inside camps, in order to transfer the IDPs from the tent to a brick house that rescue them from bad weather conditions and insect pests.

These housing projects are being constructed with the support of foreign donors, who have begun in recent years to build new cities and towns to accommodate refugees expected to be transferred to northern Syria from Turkey.

Although the project for the return of one million Syrian refugees, announced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last May, has not yet begun, the northern Syrian regions are witnessing urban, residential, or service activity, in preparation for housing refugees, under the supervision of various associations, organizations and bodies responsible for managing these residential projects, their construction and also funding.

Securing shelter for the displaced is linked to several complex and intertwined issues related to protecting property rights within those areas.

The main reasons for its complexity and the concerns associated with it are the multiplicity of agencies that manage the real estate registry, the collapse of relevant government institutions, the absence of a safe institutional alternative, in addition to the loss and damage of property documents for the majority of the displaced.

In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the emergence of housing projects supervised by Turkish relief groups funded by international and Arab organizations, in addition to the ownership of the lands of these housing complexes, the method of handing over the housing complexes to their residents, and the types of ownership documents owned by residents, in addition to the legal aspects associated with it.

Houses of the Kemmune residential compound in Idlib countryside - 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Houses of the Kemmune residential compound in Idlib countryside – 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Move to ceiling and walls

The dream of stability collides with a “stressful reality”

After the landlord asked the displaced to move their tents from his land, Alia al-Hajji, 24, was forced to hand over the land she was renting in exchange for setting up her family’s tent inside the town of Sarmada, near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in the northern countryside of Idlib governorate.

Then the displaced families, including the family of Alia al-Hajji, went to the Development and Humanitarian Affairs Center in order to register on the houses that were being constructed in the area by Turkish organizations to transfer the camp residents there.

The center of the Syrian Salvation Government’s Humanitarian Affairs Ministry contacted al-Hajji and the rest of the displaced people who were living on the same land to transfer them to the homes of the Kemmune camp near the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

“Only two and a half months have passed since I moved to the homes of Kemmune camp, and during this period, the Development and Humanitarian Affairs Center conducted inspection patrols to ensure the residence of the same families that received the houses,” al-Hajji told Enab Baladi. She also confirmed that neither the administration nor the organizations concluded any agreement or contract with her regarding the ownership of the house or the legality of residence so far.

The center’s staff told the displaced families who moved to the Kemmune camp that after three months of their residence in the house, an agreement would be concluded between them and the management of the Development Center, stipulating that they would use the apartments for housing only, and it was not permissible under the terms of the agreement to rent the house by its residents or sell it or even leave it without notifying the center management, and the copy of the contract is kept with the center management only.

No electricity

“After my displacement from my village to northern Syria and moving several times between rented houses, I had to rent a land in the Atma area and build a room to accommodate me with my family, but I could not afford to pay the rent for the land,” said Ali (pseudonym), 33, a driver in one of the aid organizations operating in northern Syria.

Ali added to Enab Baladi that the administration of the Development and Humanitarian Affairs Center gave notice to everyone who had registered an application for a house in the Kemmune camp to go to the center and receive their homes.

The Kemmune camp includes the village of Mohammad Akif Inan, which contains one-story brick apartments, established by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), where Ali lives in one of its houses, and another village established by the Turkish Religious Endowment, where Alia al-Hajji and her family live.

However, the cement houses lack an electric network which has forced families to purchase solar panels in order to obtain electricity, according to al-Hajji and Ali.

Water and electricity installations and supplies of solar panels are available inside homes, according to what al-Hajji indicated, whose family only had to secure the high-priced solar panels, but inside Ali’s house, these installations were not present, which forced him to secure them at his personal expense. As for people who do not have the ability to buy panels, they had to replace them with large rechargeable batteries.

Ceilings and walls

Enab Baladi contacted the Salvation Government’s Local Administration Ministry to ask about its role in supervising the services provided to the camps that are administratively affiliated with it, in addition to the party to which the lands of those camps belong, but Enab Baladi did not receive any response until the date of preparing this file.

Enab Baladi also spoke earlier with the head of the State Property Department in the Salvation Government, Adnan al-Qassem, who said at the time that the government does not grant state property land to associations but rather allocates it to the Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs, for the benefit of an organization or association with the aim of establishing a camp whether it is a cement camp or a makeshifts camp.

Al-Qassem stressed that the association or organization has nothing to do with the land, but the usufruct is allocated to the Development Ministry, adding that granting the land to an association is not a sale, lease, or gift, but rather an allocation, which means that real estate remains state property, and the allocation is only for the use of the property under conditions.

The purpose of the allotment, the period, and the rest of the details shall be specified in the allotment decision.

Al-Qassem pointed out that most of the lands that are allocated from state property are mountains and rocky lands, and there are no agricultural lands. However, a committee from the State Property Department and the Ministry of Development would survey the land before allocating it.

According to the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), which is responsible for coordinating humanitarian relief operations in Syria, most residential complexes need a civilian entity to manage and organize services within them, and the majority of these complexes lack sufficient infrastructure and service standards necessary to provide for the basic needs of their residents.  

Ali complained about the condition of the house when he received it, saying that “the apartment is only a roof and walls, as he repaired and equipped what was possible in order to live in the new house after it was in a dire situation.” He wondered about the condition of the other displaced people who were unable to ‘clad’ and prepare their homes.

The houses contain an infrastructure of a water network connected to water tanks, which are filled by the residents frequently, despite the presence of an artesian well that was established at the beginning of the project and was initially invested by a local organization for a period of six months, but this well has not yet entered service.

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its website regarding whether the housing projects in northern Syria are able to meet the shelter needs of refugees returning from Turkey.

Two hundred and eighty users participated in the survey, 64 percent of the respondents believe that these housing projects will not contribute to securing the shelter needs of refugees, while 36 percent of the respondents believe that such housing projects contribute to securing the basic needs of refugees.

Housing units in the “City of Hope” project, whose construction is supervised by the Qatar Charity and the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Authority (İHH) - 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Housing units in the “City of Hope” project, whose construction is supervised by the Qatar Charity and the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Authority (İHH) – 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Search for land owners 

The projects of Turkish organizations in the housing and shelter sector in the northern regions of Syria began to spread for the first time at the beginning of 2020 within the Idlib region with the aim of housing the displaced people from various cities and those living in random camps in the northern regions in an attempt to reduce their suffering.

One of these projects was sponsored by the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Authority (İHH) in Idlib governorate and northern Aleppo by completing the construction of 2,000 cement houses, which included a salon and one room, as part of the “Provide Shelter for the Oppressed” campaign, which aimed to house 10,000 IDP families in Idlib by building 15,000 homes.

The cement houses that the İHH started with that campaign in the northern Syrian regions have increased to about 18,000 houses today as an alternative to the displaced people from their tents and to provide them with the minimum humanitarian needs.

In early June, the Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, said that the number of homes that have been built so far had reached about 60,000 brick homes in 259 points in northern Syria.

This came at a meeting held in the Turkish capital of Ankara to introduce the project of 100,000 brick houses in Idlib.

The minister explained that 45,903 of these homes were established in the Idlib region, and about 14,000 of them were in the Euphrates Shield region (Aleppo countryside) and Olive Branch region (Afrin) according to the Anadolu Agency (AA).

According to what Enab Baladi monitored in the countryside of Aleppo, the houses that were built within those areas have not yet been inhabited by the people, unlike the houses that were built in the Idlib region.

In his latest statement, on 26 June, Soylu announced the total number of houses that the Turkish government is working on completing in different areas in northern Syria, under the supervision of several Turkish organizations, by the end of this year, as he aims to complete the project that contains 100,000 in Idlib, according to what was reported by the TRT Haber newspaper.

As for the cities of Jarablus, al-Bab, and Azaz in the countryside of Aleppo, in addition to the town of Tal Abyad in the northern countryside of Raqqa and the city of Ras al-Ain in the countryside of al-Hasakah, the Turkish government is working, in cooperation with several organizations, to construct 240,000 homes.

In his recent visit to the city of Tal Abyad, located on the border with Turkey, north of Raqqa, on 18 June, to inspect the project to build housing units there under the supervision of the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), Soylu explained that the area of ​​land allocated for the project in the city of Tal Abyad is 120 hectares.

Pre-coordination with local councils

The most prominent Turkish authorities that supervise the construction of housing projects in northern Syria, according to the statements of the Turkish Minister of Interior, are İHH, AFAD, the Turkish Religious Endowment, and the Turkish Red Crescent.

Enab Baladi contacted the Turkish Religious Endowment, AFAD, and the Turkish Red Crescent, to obtain information about these housing projects, but these parties refused to make any statements or comment on the matter and asked Enab Baladi to search for other sources to obtain information.

Meanwhile, Enab Baladi contacted the İHH media office, which said that the lands on which the housing projects were built, previously or currently, “have not been bought or rented.”

There are many types of land ownership in the northern Syrian regions, between private lands owned by individuals, communal lands, and lands owned by the state within state property.

Some Turkish organizations are supervising the construction of housing projects with the support and funding of foreign organizations, including Qatar Charity, which is currently working in the Azaz area in the northern countryside of Aleppo, to establish a project in cooperation with the Turkish İHH, under the name “City of Hope.”

Mohammed Wahi, director of Qatar Charity’s regional office in Turkey, told Enab Baladi that there is “prior coordination” before starting any housing project, and this coordination is between the local council and the Turkish government to choose the land that will be used to build brick houses, in addition to facilities and other service facilities of the project.

“A massive effort is being made with the local authorities and the Turkish government to select the land to ensure that no logistical challenges are encountered during the implementation of the project,” Wahi added.

The project is located specifically in the Soran area near the village of al-Tawaqli, adjacent to the Syrian-Turkish border, near the Bab al-Salama crossing.

Wahi pointed out that the land used in this current project was provided to them by the local council in the city, which in turn chose this particular land because it belongs to state property.

The signboard of the Kemmune residential complex in Idlib countryside - 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

The signboard of the Kemmune residential complex in Idlib countryside – 21 June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

Legality of residential complexes

Most of the lands of residential complexes in northern Syria were public lands owned by the government before the establishment of the residential complexes on them, and some of them were private agricultural lands, and there are some complexes built on forested areas and hills that are not owned by any party, according to the Assistance Coordination Unit.

In most of the northern regions that were controlled by the Syrian opposition forces, attempts were made to reactivate the real estate records since the real estate registry is the main reference that guarantees the real estate rights of people in Syria through the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs.

Enab Baladi spoke with the Land Registry Directorate in the city of Azaz about the mechanism of coordination with organizations and charities to establish residential communities, where Qatar Charity has started to fund the “City of Hope” project.

Adnan Taha, director of the Land Registry in Azaz, said, “A while ago, we were addressed in the real estate registry to search for unallocated state lands, as it was discussed that most of the lands of state property are likely to be among the agricultural reform funds.”

For this reason, “emphasis is placed on searching for lands belonging to state property that are not suitable for agriculture, that is, rocky, and that construction is not carried out except on the condition that identification papers are attached, an inspection is carried out and that these units will not be owned by anyone,” Taha explained.

State property or public property in Syria is the property registered in the name of the Syrian Arab Republic, and if the property or land offered for sale is owned by a specific ministry, the person authorized to sell it is the minister of this entity.

The area of ​​the real estate area in the city of Azaz is 1,259 square kilometers, and the border city was out of the control of the Syrian regime forces in 2012.

The alternative administration of the Land Registry was established in 2019, with a reactivation by the local council in Azaz, and the reactivation was funded and supported by the council in the first stage and later by the Turkish government.

“Our role is only to verify the ownership of the real estate, and the coordination of construction is through the local councils of each region,” according to Taha, who confirmed that “no real estate is built in the Azaz region without asking the real estate registry.”

The Directorate of Land Registry in Azaz includes the city of Azaz and its countryside, the town of Sawan and its countryside, the town of Akhtarin and its countryside, and the town of Mare and its countryside.

According to Taha, the housing projects have not yet been registered with the ownership of the local council, but “it is certain that this will be registered after the completion of the cadastral and secretory plans” because “it is legally more correct to register the ownership of housing projects in the name of the local council, and then the procedures are taken based on the Residential Association Law.

Conditional legality

Building on public property is a right restricted to the state through its ministries and specialized institutions in principle, and within clear legal conditions and criteria, such as achieving the public interest of citizens, such as solving the housing problem or building public facilities, or for other purposes specified by law.

Lawyer Ayman Abu Hashem said that the de facto authorities’ administration of the northern Syrian regions “does not absolve them of the responsibility to abide by these required conditions and standards” if they use, exploit, or invest in public properties within their areas of control.

Despite the necessity of building housing complexes from a living and humanitarian point of view to solve refugee problems, the local councils operating in these areas are legally obligated to make clear in the licenses they grant to charity organizations and construction companies that they are not of a commercial nature and that they do not grant the beneficiaries the right to own and fully dispose of them, but rather the right to housing and occupancy only until they return to their original areas from which they were displaced, according to Abu Hashem.

These strict legal conditions aim to prevent permanent settlement of the residents of these compounds and not to be a final solution, the lawyer told Enab Baladi.

Taking into account the fears imposed by forced displacement does not mean neglecting the conditions of safety and adequate housing that must be provided, which are also the duties of local councils and bodies charged with granting permits and construction.

The legality of the decisions of the local councils and their actions in this regard depends on the extent of their commitment to those required conditions and standards.

With regard to all forms of confiscation that took place in the northern Syrian regions, regardless of the Syrian societal components, the affected property owners should be “given the right to file lawsuits to challenge the confiscation and seizure decisions, before an independent, impartial and non-politicized judicial body,” the lawyer recommends.

The fears of any societal component of the confiscation of lands and real estate owned by individuals are “legitimate concerns and must be taken into consideration,” he added.

Because Syrian and international human rights reports document violations of real estate properties in the northern Syrian regions by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army factions, lawyer Abu Hashem believes that the experiences of local councils are “not encouraging so far as bodies capable of protecting the public or private property.”

In recent years, it has become clear that “the independence of these councils is weak, amid the Turkish role in defining their functions and tasks, and the predominance of the influence of military leaders over civil and judicial bodies.”

These concerns and problems shed light on the required role of local councils in managing public and private property and protecting it from various forms of confiscation and infringements on owners of rights and property, as it is one of the most important challenges they face.

In order to confront the challenges, the local councils must reform their structure and enhance their independence within a national and democratic vision so as to provide them with the ingredients for a fair representation of local communities that are supposed to represent their interests and defend their rights.

The design plan of the “City of Hope” project, funded by the Qatar Charity and the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Authority (İHH), June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

The design plan of the “City of Hope” project, funded by the Qatar Charity and the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Authority (İHH), June 2022 (Enab Baladi)

 

 

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