Informal Housing in Syria: What Approach after the Conflict? Whose Rights Will be Protected?

Syrian residents return to the recently-seized Yarmouk Camp enclave to check on their houses and properties in south Damascus, Syria, 24 May 2018. According to media reports, a mass celebration was held at al-Najmeh Square in the adjacent al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood. © EPA-EFE/YOUSSEF BADAWI

(Paris/Beirut/Tunis, 28 October 2021) – The Arab Reform Initiative today released a series of outputs examining the rights of those living in informal housing in Syria. The aim of these studies is to understand the legal frameworks and urban planning practices in Syria with respect to informal settlements and to explore lessons from other experiences in the Arab region where communities living in informal housing mobilized to demand their rights.

A large proportion of Syria’s population lives in informal housing, with estimates that informal housing represented 30 to 40% of total dwellings before the 2011 uprising. Such housing was particularly prevalent in the peri-urban areas that have suffered most of the destruction and displacement since the start of the subsequent conflict. Despite its prevalence, informal housing and the rights of its residents have not received sufficient attention in recent policy discussions around Syria’s reconstruction.

“Any discussion of reconstruction needs to take into account the reality of informal housing in Syria where most of the displaced population used to live,” said Nadim Houry, editor of the collection and Executive Director of the Arab Reform Initiative. “One of the major findings that come across is that the Syrian government has found in the massive informal reality of Syrian cities — which predates the conflict — a loophole through which it can advance the interests of some of its cronies at the expense of the rights of local residents.”

The collection of outputs includes:

  • A research report authored by Ahmad Sukkar, Sawsan Abou Zainedin, and Hani Fakhani, which maps out and analyses the Syrian government’s approach towards informality. It starts by laying a pre-2011 historical background about the interlinks between the rise of informality in Syria and the government’s approach towards housing provision and land management. It provides a critical reading of the evolution of the legal frameworks,  arguing that informality was a natural product of the government’s chronic and systematic failure in coping with the increased needs for housing. The report then examines the evolution of the government’s post-2011 approach to informality by mapping a series of planned and ongoing reconstruction projects across different cities in Syria while closely observing the legal foundations underpinning each case, the official narratives around them, the implementations procedures, the progress made, and the impact of these projects on the population. The research deepens this analysis through two detailed case studies: al-Qabun district in Damascus suburbs and al-Haydariyya district in east Aleppo.
  • An interactive timeline which provides an overview of major laws, decrees, presidential recommendations, policies, programmes, and activities related to informal housing in Syria pre-2011. The timeline aims to contribute to understanding the approach of Syrian authorities to informal settlements to allow for a wider understanding of the current issues facing informal settlements.
  • A curated bibliography of of key research papers, documents, and outputs on informal housing in Syria produced in English and Arabic.

The outputs also included case studies to highlight possible lessons for Syria from other experiences in the Arab region where activists, lawyers, and urban planners worked with local communities in an effort to propose alternatives to top-down plans that were mostly driven by a neo-liberal and/or security approach. While each context differs, many of the dynamics driving Syria’s approach to informal settlements find echo in the securitized approach adopted in other countries in the region. The outputs notably include:

  • A Case Study examining the role of the local community in mobilizing for their rights in the context of the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon authored by Ismael Sheikh Hassan. The paper explores the role of the local community and local activists in confronting the security visions of the Lebanese state and military for the reconstruction of the camp that was destroyed in 2007 after battles between the Lebanese army and an armed Islamist group. The paper highlights the role of local organizing, the elements that led to certain successes in opposing the initial plans, but also ultimately the limitations encountered.
  • A Case Study exploring community organizing in resisting displacement in Cairo’s Ramlet Bulaq authored by Omnia Khalil. The paper explored the mobilization that occurred between 2012 to 2015 when a number of activists and lawyers joined forces with the local community of Ramlet Bulaq in Cairo to follow a model of participatory community design in order to upgrade the neighborhood that was classified as informal settlement and that private developers and the state wanted to demolish and replace by new towers. The paper discussed the opportunities for local mobilization to develop alternative solutions but also commented on the reasons for the ultimate failure of the participatory approach adopted.

The research was funded by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (commonly known as GIZ) as part of their project on securing the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons to Housing, Land, and Property in Syria.

“Addressing the situation of those who used to live in informal housing is not just a matter of acknowledging some forms of informal tenure rights in the current legal frameworks. It requires reframing our understanding of informality beyond its mere articulation as a legal or illegal form of tenure and addressing some of the underlying land and housing policies in place. Upholding a rights-based and socially just perspective to embrace informality and the rights of those who lived in informal settlements is the only viable way to address the severe needs in war-torn Syria,” Houry noted.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.