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Syria: Residents Blocked From Returning

Government Demolishes Homes, Denies Property Rights

2018-10-16

The Syrian government is unlawfully preventing displaced residents from former anti-government-held areas from returning to their properties, Human Rights Watch said on October 16, 2018.

Residents of one town, Qaboun, said the government is also demolishing their properties with no warning, and without providing alternative housing or compensation. Human Rights Watch analyzed satellite imagery over Qaboun neighborhoods showing large-scale demolitions starting in late May 2017, after fighting there ended. The imagery confirms the demolitions are still taking place.

“Russia and Syria are calling on people to return to attract reconstruction funding, but as always with the Syrian government, reality is much different,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Apparently under the guise of a notorious property rights law, the Syrian government is actually blocking residents from returning.”

The Syrian council of ministers and local authorities designated parts of Darayya for redevelopment in April 2018 and Qaboun in July. Both towns have been identified with the Syrian revolution, and the government has retaken both from anti-government groups. But under Law 10 of 2018, passed in April, the government can appropriate private property without due process or adequate compensation in redevelopment zones, a Human Rights Watch analysis found.

Human Rights Watch spoke to seven Syrians who had attempted to return to their homes in Darayya and Qaboun, or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in May and July. Residents said that they or their relatives were unable to access their residential or commercial properties. In Darayya, they said, the government was imposing town-wide restrictions on access, and in Qaboun they said, the government either had restricted access to their neighborhoods or had demolished their property.

The Syrian government recaptured the towns after large-scale offensives that included indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the use of prohibited weapons. The offensives caused extensive damage and resulted in mass displacement of thousands of residents.

Based on media and government statements issued between May 2017 and October 2018, the Syrian government announced that it was destroying tunnels created by anti-government groups, as well as explosive remnants armed groups left behind in Qaboun. However, satellite imagery Human Rights Watch reviewed during this period showed that the government demolished houses with heavy, earth moving machinery such as bulldozers, and excavators as well as with the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives, which is inconsistent with closing underground tunnels.

Human Rights Watch also compared impact sites from the airstrikes with the demolitions. Human Rights Watch found that while many buildings were most likely damaged in airstrikes or ground fighting, but it was clear that many of the buildings demolished were also visibly intact and potentially inhabitable and were not demolished because they were damaged by airstrikes.

As one refugee put it: “They took our children, our blood and now our property – what is left for us to return to?”

Preventing displaced residents from accessing and returning to their homes without an apparently valid security reason or providing alternatives to the displaced communities makes these restrictions arbitrary, and most likely amounts to forced displacement, Human Rights Watch said.

International law guarantees freedom of movement for people who are in a country lawfully. Restrictions should only be imposed if they are provided by law, necessary to achieve legitimate aims, nondiscriminatory, and proportionate – that is, carefully balanced against the specific reason for the restriction.

In imposing restrictions on entry and exit from Qaboun and blocking return to Darayya entirely without providing a legitimate reason, or individualized security screenings of residents seeking to enter or leave, the government is violating its obligations to guarantee freedom of movement. Given the time that has passed since the recapture of these areas, and the scale of impact of these restrictions, they also appear to be disproportionate.

International humanitarian law also prohibits “wanton destruction” of property, and deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate attacks against civilians and civilian objects. 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.

The restrictions on access, demolitions, and confiscation of property also affect displaced people’s ability and willingness to return to their areas of origin, Human Rights Watch said. Refugees indicated that their inability to go to their areas of origin and the lack of guarantees that security will be maintained there are reasons they would not return. Others said that this is only the latest in a series of Syrian government actions showing disregard for the civilian population.

Russia, and other countries that are calling for the return of refugees, should use their leverage with the Syrian government to ensure that the property rights of displaced people seeking to return are protected, and that the government does not expropriate or demolish their properties arbitrarily and without providing them with alternatives.

Donor countries, investors, and humanitarian agencies operating in areas retaken by the government should ensure that any funds they provide to programs aimed at rebuilding and rehabilitating structures in areas retaken by the government meet certain standards. They should make certain that their funds do not contribute to the abuse of property rights of residents or displaced people, and that the funds do not go to entities or people responsible for human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law.

The United Nations should ensure that its agencies’ programming, including delivery of humanitarian aid, small-scale infrastructure rehabilitation projects and provision of services, does not contribute to violating the property rights of residents or displaced people and is not applied in a discriminatory manner.

“In demolishing their homes and restricting access to their property, the Syrian government is signaling that despite official rhetoric inviting Syrians ‘home,’ they do not want refugees or displaced persons back,” Fakih said. “Donors considering funding reconstruction to facilitate returns should be put on notice.”

Source:Human Rights Watch