Damascus is facing a housing crisis as displaced Syrians stream into the capital. New government-imposed security regulations targeting the new arrivals are feeding an already vibrant culture of price manipulation and bribery.
A recently imposed regulation requiring people who move to Damascus to be vetted by security forces before they can rent or buy a new home is forcing many internally displaced people to turn to bribery.
While Syrians are accustomed to government bureaucracy, the regulation, which came into effect in August 2015, directly affects internally displaced citizens who have fled the provinces in the hope of finding some stability in government-controlled Damascus.
Akram, 30, spent three months going from one security branch to another in the hope of acquiring one of these security permits to rent a house in the Meydan neighborhood – a well-to-do area in southern Damascus, but his requests were repeatedly rejected. He thinks the reason might be because he moved to the capital from the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta on the northeastern outskirts
This security permit regulation was imposed as more and more displaced Syrians – the majority from opposition held-areas – began relocating to the capital. The restrictions were meant to enable the government to keep tighter control over a steadily increasing population and to determine the allegiances of the new arrivals.
The regulation states that anyone who wishes to rent a home, move furniture or buy or sell a property must obtain a written security clearance issued by the local security branch. Landlords face possible criminal charges if they sell or rent property without first verifying permits.
Those who have fled hot-spots in rural areas are almost always denied the permits.
The journey from the countryside to Damascus is dangerous and costly enough – some families told Syria Deeply they paid upward of US$900 in bribes to pass through government-controlled security checkpoints – but once inside the capital, new arrivals are forced to pay additional bribes to counter legal difficulties.
Abu Hassan, 45, from the rebel-held suburb of Zamalka, moved to a government-controlled section of the capital several years ago. But when security clearance regulations went into effect, his landlord in Meydan used it as an opportunity for extortion, doubling his rent because he did not have the permit.
Abu Hassan applied multiple times for security clearance, but was refused each time. Increasingly desperate and unable to continue paying his rent, he looked into moving to another neighborhood.
“For two months I kept trying to get the security clearance but my requests were always denied, until I spoke to the officers at the checkpoint who assured me that I would get the permit in two days” if he paid up, he said. Two days and $250 in bribes later he received the permit to move his furniture and rent a new house.
One of the most tragic stories surrounding the housing issue in Damascus is that of Um Qais, a 50-year-old woman who now lives, along with her three children, in one of the city’s public parks. “The madness of prices and regulations meant that I had nowhere to live except in a small tent in a public park,” she said.
She’s not alone. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see dozens of tents spread throughout parks across the city.
Damascus is no longer the large city it used to be. Today it is divided into a dozen smaller cities. Access to some neighbourhoods like al-Malki and Abu Rommana is limited to the rich, famous and well-connected, while other neighborhoods like al-Mezzeh and Baghdad Street are filled with the poor, underprivileged and recently displaced.
As the demand for housing in the relative safety of the capital continues to increase, and fighting continues across the country, displaced residents in Damascus fear that extortion and exploitation by landlords and security officials will only grow worse.