Humanitarian, Economic & Social Situation in Syria
At the beginning of this year, two important reports assessed the human rights and economic and social situation in Syria. The first, the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in February 2022 (A/HRC/49/77), and the other by the United Nations Country Team’s Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG), issued in March 2022, sets out the United Nations Strategic Framework for Action, 2022–2024 in Syria. The Commission of Inquiry (CoI) reports catalogue the consequences of the crisis, while the Strategic Framework for Action focuses on remedies.
The CoI issued its latest report on the human rights situation and the grave violations against the civilian population, especially vulnerable and marginalized groups, during the last six months of 2021. The Commission’s Chairman Mr. Sergio Pinheiro described these conditions are progressing toward the abyss, due to economic collapse and causing a humanitarian catastrophe, due to the continued escalation of military operations from all sides, which the report identified five foreign military forces, non-governmental armed groups, and terrorist entities, according to the classification of the United Nations.
The report warned that 90% of the population lives below the poverty line, and food prices have risen by more than 200%. The report also noted the negative effects of unilateral coercive sanctions, and excessive compliance with the implementation of those sanctions on a large scale, which has led to the banks` reticence to address humanitarian cases, and the refusal of transport companies to deal with shipments of humanitarian aid delivery, which directly affected the livelihoods of civilians, especially vulnerable groups of displaced women and children. The report expressed the growing concern about the humanitarian impact of the sanctions, especially with the presence of 7 million internally displaced persons, including 3.1 million children.
In the report, the Committee also expressed concern about the failure to conduct investigations into crimes and violations attributed to the US-led coalition that have caused harm to Syrian civilians, including violations of international humanitarian law and potential war crimes.
In addition to reviewing the deteriorating humanitarian conditions as a result of military operations and the indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas, the report addresses violations that have affected housing, land and property rights, and operations that have taken on a formalized character, looting the properties of the displaced persons and selling them off at public auctions in the areas under the control of the Syrian government forces. Governors and local committees have been taking inventory of the lands and properties to prepare auction lists, classifying them by location, area and type of land, which the governors then validate for auction with their signature.
The majority of the displaced and now-dispossessed owners are located outside the areas controlled by the government forces, or are refugees abroad. Their loss of housing, land and property causes them to lose hope of their return. These auctions serve the benefit of members of pro-government militias or figures with close ties to government authorities, formalizing the illegal practices of pro-government militias and other local actors of self-enrichment, plundering land and confiscating crops.
In the latter half of 2021, the lists of auctions documented by the Committee of Inquiry included more than 1,440 owners, 33,600 dunums of land in eight towns in Hama Governorate, 10,000 dunums of land in three towns in Dhayr al-Zawr Governorate, and no less than 61,991 dunams of land in Idlib Governorate. This is in addition to the destruction of vast areas of agricultural land with high-value crops, which the pro-government militias have illegally plowed and harvested for the profit specific individuals and personalities. In September 2021, the Syrian Ministry of Justice issued a general decree, requiring that security approval for agents who manage the properties of displaced or absentees before starting to issue power of attorney bonds.
President al-Asad issued a decree in the same month that works to enable expropriations without reference to the law on land reorganization. This allows for confiscation in exchange for compensation through equity shares estimated at less than its actual value in the towns of Qabun and Harasta area, at the northern entrance to Damascus, which was previously controlled by the opposition.
In the town of Afrin, armed groups continue to seize and loot the property of the displaced, confiscating homes, shops and factories, and seizing olive crops on the pretext of collecting taxes. These armed groups no longer recognize the official and unofficial agencies that allow absentee landowners to safeguard their properties.
Some owners also expressed their fear of resorting to the official mechanisms available to retrieve their property for fear of retaliation by the Syrian National Army factions, which also loot their property. The report warned that the confiscation of private property by the parties to the conflict, and the realization of personal gains from selling crops or confiscating them to collect taxes, constitutes the war crime of pillage.
As for the other report issued by the United Nations Sustainable Development Group on the United Nations Strategic Framework, 2022–2024 deals with the economic and social conditions that the Syrian people are suffering due to the protracted and continuously worsening crisis. Especially with the great damage to the agriculture, electricity, industry, health and housing sectors, the collapse of water resources and basic utilities services, the categories of vulnerable people has expanded since 2011. These include internally displaced persons, people with disabilities, children who lost, or became separated from their families, women breadwinners and Palestinian refugees, in addition to other refugees residing illegally in Syria.
The sustainable development report reviewed the conditions of those vulnerable groups who are still living in temporary shelters, including unfinished or damaged buildings. The report noted the need to find long-term and sustainable solutions for the displaced, in order to prevent the humanitarian needs and conditions from deteriorating further. It also cited how the economic and social conditions that the COVID-19 crisis has increased challenges. As a result of the multiple crises, the decline in economic and social indicators, the decline in GDP, the rise in food prices, and the decline in job creation have led to an increase in urban displacement, while facilities and services already degraded as a result of the war.
This strategic framework has been developed in order to contribute to the promotion and implementation of the national priorities set by the Syrian government in its implementation of the 2030 Agenda, in order to implement an integrated approach that combines social, economic and environmental dimensions, which the strategy summarized in five main pillars:
- Building institutions and promoting integration,
- Renewal and development of infrastructure and services,
- Development and growth (sustainable and balanced),
- Human development (the social and educational dimension),
- National dialogue and political pluralism.
These five pillars are to be implemented according to the strategic framework in four phases: the relief phase, the recovery phase, the recovery phase, and then the sustainable development phase. The Strategic Framework 2022–2024 explains that it is primarily based on the resilience of people and communities, basic livelihoods, and early recovery activities, which were stipulated in Security Council Resolution S/RES/2585 (2011), which complements the relevant humanitarian response plan by increasing flexibility and facilitating access to basic services, livelihoods and social cohesion.
The new remedial strategy focuses on people-based social and economic resilience in a comprehensive and equitable manner to meet challenges in both rural and urban areas. It targets the most-vulnerable populations with community participation in approving the resilience and recovery plan, with psycho-social support and public health. This recovery plan includes urban areas at all levels of cities, municipalities and neighborhoods, with the rehabilitation of infrastructure to preserve the right to life, access to services for all people, in general, and for the vulnerable in particular, with economic recovery and urban planning.
In the Strategic Framework 2022–2024, intensive focus will be placed on enhancing environmental sustainability, due to the exacerbation of environmental problems and lack of resources as a result of the war. And the focus will be on addressing climate change, working on sustainable management of natural resources, controlling emissions, and effective management of water and other natural resources, with the establishment of an integrated waste management. The partnership in this strategy will be expanded with national and international stakeholders, as well as the participation of local communities, women and youth, people affected by the crisis, as well as the private sector.
The strategy is based on four main pillars:
- Availability and access to basic and social services in an equitable, safe and just manner, especially improving access to safe drinking water and sanitation, providing building materials needed for the housing sector, and improving cadastral records.
- Sustainable economic and social recovery, through better access to social protection services, sustainable livelihoods, and equitable and comprehensive economic and social recovery, especially for vulnerable groups of women, displaced persons, refugees, and people with disabilities
- Creating an enabling environment for flexible return, by improving the living conditions of IDPs, refugees who have chosen to return voluntarily, and affected communities, including Palestinian refugees, and their reintegration, protecting social cohesion, effective participation in their communities, and promoting conditions conducive to voluntary, safe and dignified return.
This strategy seeks to enhance people’s ability to withstand and recover from shocks, and institutional response in planning and providing services from national institutions, civil society organizations, and activists, especially for vulnerable groups, and enhancing the participation of societies in building resilience and recovery, and integrating age and gender groups, in implementation of the principle that no one is left behind.
The contents of these two reports on the economic and social conditions of societies suffering from conflict and war situations clearly demonstrate that the issues of land rights, housing and property protection for IDPs and refugees are pivotal issues in addressing the root causes of the conflict, and they are one of the main topics of interest to HIC-HLRN, in particular by developing and applying tools for documenting damage and destruction of property, land and housing of internally displaced persons and refugees. Such tools and experience are needed in peace-and-security reconstruction programs based on a human rights approach, which ensures the participation of conflict-affected communities, in developing transitional justice plans and building equitable and sustainable development.