Harjaleh: A Residential Suburb for Returnees?

On November 15, the Minister for Local Administration and Environment Hussein Makhlouf told the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper that his government had taken measures to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, including securing housing units to shelter those whose homes had been temporarily damaged.

The Russian delegation that took part in this month’s “International Conference for the Return of Refugees”—organised by Damascus with Russian sponsorship and held from November 11-12—also made a visit to the Harjaleh shelter, in an indication of the facility’s importance. The delegation examined the Harjaleh medical point and school complex and helped distribute aid supplies.

The Harjaleh shelter centre is located near the town of Harjaleh, on the Damascus-Daraa highway, 20 kilometres from the Syrian capital. Administratively, it sits within the Kisweh district. The head of the Harjaleh municipality, AbdulRahman Ali Al-Khatib, who also serves as director of the Harjaleh shelter centre, was elected to the People’s Council in July 2020.

Alaa Ibrahim, the governor of Damascus Countryside, said that Syrian refugees could be received in clusters if the sanctions on Syria were lifted, according to the pro-regime Syriandays news website.

According to Ibrahim, the governorate has "gathering points" in Harjaleh and Adra in Damascus Countryside that will receive a number of returning families until preparations for infrastructure in their original areas of residence are completed. On a tour of the Harjaleh centre, Ibrahim said that the facility has undergone maintenance, and that work was underway to convert the centre into a residential suburb serviced by infrastructure, schools, and medical facilities.

UNICEF, UNHCR, the Red Crescent and the International Medical Corps have been contributing to supply the Harjaleh centre with food and medical supplies, while Damascus Countryside governorate oversees its service and logistical matters, such as electricity, water, and road networks.

Since 2013, the government has designated the shelter centre in Harjaleh to receive displaced people from opposition-held areas surrounding Damascus. The centre underwent an expansion in 2016 to accommodate displaced people in accordance with various reconciliation and expulsion agreements, as was the case with people displaced from Darayya and Moadamiyeh Al-Sham. It was later used to accommodate people displaced from East Ghouta in February-April 2018. The centre received tens of thousands of people over time before the number of its residents decreased as they were allowed to return to their hometowns.

The centre currently consists of about 200 prefab hangars, each with an area of 50 square metres, with large sandy yards separating them. Nearby are several buildings that originally served as public schools before the Damascus Countryside governorate acquired them.

The Harjaleh municipality recently provided seven hectares of land to Damascus Countryside to start implementing the residential suburb project, according to a correspondent for The Syria Report in the area. The total area designated for the suburb will span 200 hectares, but it is unclear whether the entire area will belong to the Harjaleh municipality, or if additional private properties will be expropriated for construction. The old zoning plans for Harjaleh included constructing a residential suburb in the same area where today’s shelter centre now sits. That suburb was planned for completion in 2007.