On January 14, the administrative committee for the Damascus International Airport Suburb, also called the Sakka Suburb, forcibly evicted a family just days after the death of the father, who was a retired airport employee. The committee did not provide the family with alternative housing, but instead raided the house and seized its assets, explaining that “only current airport employees are entitled to employee housing”.
Residents of the airport suburb, which is home to 529 families, are living in a state of anxiety amid repeated evictions of the families of retired or deceased airport employees. Such families comprise almost half the population of the suburb, some having lived there for as many as 35 years. A large portion of the families have breadwinners who are longtime employees on the verge of retirement, as the last employment drive for the airport was in 2006.
The committee in charge of the suburb vacated 23 apartments in March 2020 as the first coronavirus quarantine period began, saying that the residents worked for the privately owned Cham Wings Airlines. They justified the evictions by saying the residents were capable of renting homes outside the suburb. They were removed from their homes just 72 hours after receiving eviction notices.
The airport suburb was established in the 1980s, and is located next to the Seventh Bridge on the Damascus-Airport Road, 11 kilometres from the airport. It was set up as housing for workers and employees at the airport who could provide proof that they did not own any other housing. Administratively, the suburb lies within the Al-Ghazlaniyeh district of Damascus Countryside governorate.
There is a contradiction between the suburb’s designation as employee housing—as it is called by the Ministry of Transport and the Airport Authority—and its description by residents as labour housing. The difference between the two determines whether occupants have the right to remain in their residences following retirement, as well as the possibility of owning their homes, or whether they will face eviction after retirement.
Employee housing is designated for public sector workers to benefit from temporarily, with ownership remaining in the hands of the state. That is, the occupant is treated as a tenant of the state throughout the period of their usage of the residence, until they resign or retire, at which point the rental contract ends and they must vacate the property. Employee housing requires that the resident remain employed, and in return they do not incur any of the costs of housing construction, furniture or repairs.
At the same time, all labour housing conditions apply to the airport suburb. Occupants pay 10 percent of their income in rent, and pay electricity and water bills. They also bear the expenses of home maintenance, interior improvements and repairs for damage. These expenses are not meant to be paid by occupants in employee housing. Occupants in the airport suburb are also subject to the rules of ownership listed in Decree No. 46 of 2002, which requires that housing be established by the Higher Committee for Labour Housing, that its funds come from the Public Debt Fund, and that they be built by the General Housing Establishment (GHE). The airport suburb fulfills these three conditions.
Legislative Decree No. 46 of 2002 stipulated the ownership of previously held and distributed labour housing to its occupants. Payment for the residence is to be made in installments under the provisions of Legislative Decree No. 36 of 2002, over a period of 25 years, and at a maximum interest rate of five percent.
Residents of the airport suburb managed to obtain, after great effort, the Government Circular Number 5/9/31 of 2001 stipulating that occupants could not be evicted in cases of retirement or death. The Ministry of Transport managed to cancel the circular. Also, the Ministry refused to include the suburb in Legislative Decree No. 46 of 2002, considering it employee housing, rather than labour housing.
The committee overseeing the Damascus International Airport suburb has confirmed more than once that its residences are designated only for airport and air transport workers, meaning it is affiliated with the Ministry of Transport. The committee has also stated that the occupants of the suburb signed contracts that included a clause for eviction in cases of retirement and exit from employment, and that eviction is necessary in order to accommodate current employees.