The looting and demolition of homes to recycle the rubble is one of the major obstacles preventing displaced people from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus from returning. There are also serious concerns about widespread fraud in the camp involving the sale of properties using forged or stolen documents.
Yarmouk camp, located seven kilometres from the city centre of Damascus, suffered significant destruction during the war and was considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. In 2011, it had a population of between 500,000 and 600,000 people, including 160,000 Palestinian refugees. Since its establishment in the 1950s, the camp became a vibrant urban area, extending into the neighbouring Damascus districts. Between 2012-2018, the camp was controlled by opposition forces and Islamist groups, undergoing a crippling siege by the regime forces and continuous bombing, including by Russian aircraft. The fighting caused destruction and the forced displacement of Yarmouk residents.
According to pro-government local media, around four families return daily to the camp, which currently houses about 20,000 people. However, a local correspondent for The Syria Report questioned the accuracy of these numbers, citing more modest estimates from local sources in the camp. They indicated that about 3,000 families, or approximately 15,000 people, currently reside in the camp. The discrepancy in these numbers may be due to the possibility of visiting the camp with temporary security clearance while returning to live there requires security clearance issued by military intelligence.
The correspondent noted that many displaced individuals have managed to repair their homes but have not returned to live in them due to deteriorating security conditions, frequent thefts, lack of transportation, poor services and the presence of stray dogs.
Abu Hassan, a camp resident, told The Syria Report that he received security approval in June 2023 and afterwards visited his home in the 8th of March camp district for the first time after years of displacement. Abu Hassan discovered that his house was in poor condition, looted and with a partially collapsed roof. The house was no longer habitable and needed restoration and re-cladding. In early November 2023, Abu Hassan entered the camp again, only to find a mound of rubble where his house once stood.
The looting crews in the camp were previously made up of small groups, each comprising four to five people. However, after facing violent confrontations with the residents, the groups became larger, including 15-25 workers. According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, looting is ongoing in the Zein, Al-Takamon, 8th of March, and Al-Orouba Street neighbourhoods adjacent to the cities of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and Yalda. The looting is carried out by crews, most of whose workers are Syrian gipsies, including women, teenagers and children, equipped with hand tools and small trucks.
While property owners in the camp cannot visit it without temporary security approval, these crews enter the camp daily, leaving with trucks loaded with metals extracted from the rubble through the military security checkpoints that surround all entrances and exits of the camp. The crews leave non-recyclable debris in place, accumulating in the streets and blocking them, despite local community campaigns to remove it. The rubble still blocks alleys and side streets, like the alleys of Palestine Street, Abu Hassan’s stand, Al-Maghareba Street, and the alleys of Ayn Ghazal.
Nevertheless, the real estate sales market in the camp became active in 2023 due to an increase in the number of houses offered for sale through illegal methods. A human rights activist from the camp told The Syria Report that during the armed conflict in the camp from 2012 to 2018, armed groups, both loyalist and opposition, seized personal documents and property deeds from homes whose owners were killed, detained, or displaced fleeing the fighting.
Some of these documents have reappeared for the sale of properties without their owners’ knowledge. The correct property deeds are often used to transfer ownership of these properties, using either correct or forged personal documents and forged sales contracts. In a few cases, the fictitious buyer files a lawsuit to confirm the property sale contract in court. In the presence of two witnesses at the court session, a person claiming to be the seller acknowledges selling the property and receiving payment using the stolen or forged documents. Subsequently, the court issues a ruling confirming the purchase of the property. This court ruling serves as a property deed. It is prevalent in informal areas where properties do not have real estate records, are unlicensed, or are communally owned but not divided.