It was through an unexpected phone call from a police officer, telling him he was summoned to court in Damascus, that Abdullah*, 31, discovered his house was being stolen.

He had to abandon his home in 2012, when he fled Syria during a security crackdown on anti-government activists. Now, he was being told to explain to the courts that he had not transferred the house to a distant relative.

The relative had falsely claimed Abdullah had signed an agreement to the sale and been paid. In a calculated move, they were prepared to use the courts to enforce the fraud, knowing Abdullah could not return home to plead his case.

The forged document is one of many being used by corrupt networks profiting from the chaos of the country’s 12-year war by stripping property from refugees.

In a reporting partnership with Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ) and non-profit The Day After, the Guardian has spoken to victims and legal sources who say the thefts are a barrier to refugees returning to Syria.

“I’m living as a refugee in Turkey, and I do not know, if one day the Syrian regime steps down, how I will return to Syria, where will I live then? Will I be able to get my house back or not?” said Abdullah. “The theft of the house means losing everything, as it is what I got from my father, who died in the basements of the Air Force Intelligence, after his arrest in 2013.”

Abdullah also fears torture in Syria because of his role documenting regime violence against protesters. But living as a refugee abroad is also uncertain, with many countries hosting Syrians growing hostile towards them, or developing relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In Turkey, refugees have been deported and politicians have threatened to send all of them back within years, while returns have happened in Lebanon and Jordan and Denmark is preparing to do so.

A lack of centralised court records means there is no data on the scale of property thefts in Syria but one lawyer said he discovered 125 cases of stolen homes in Damascus alone in the first half of 2022.

Former lawyer Abdul Nasser Hoshan said his investigations had uncovered 20 networks in other cities, including Aleppo and Hama, where much of the population was displaced by fighting. The networks can have up to 50 members, from lawyers and judges to military officials. They find empty homes, forge sales documents and force them through the courts without the owners’ knowledge.

Abdullah said his relative had links to the Fourth Division, a unit of the military run by Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad.

“I tried to appoint a lawyer to follow up on the case but they refused because I was wanted by the security forces,” Abdullah said. Negotiating with the relative also failed and mediators ended up being threatened with being reported for collaborating with a government enemy.

Hoshan blamed military officials, in particular, Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Division.

“It is linked to the judges and lawyers, it has a role in their appointment and therefore there is a partnership between the Fourth Division and fraud networks,” said Hoshan.

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Abu Hassan, a businessman from the Syrian town of Jdaidet al-Wadi left his home in 2014, initially allowing a displaced family to live there rent-free. Later, neighbours told him the family had been moved on, replaced by new people.

“They told me it was an officer from the Fourth Division. How? I had no idea what to do,” said Hassan.

He arranged for his son to travel from Turkey to Damascus to investigate, after paying a bribe for him to skip military service. It was discovered that the officer’s family had gone to the previous owners of the house and forced them to sign a sale document.

“I was subjected to a systematic fraud, the country is in chaos and everything is happening by force of arms, specifically and by power. And of course an officer in the Fourth Division will certainly be able to do what he wants, because he is a strong officer in the army and has all the power. If he is in the Fourth Division, he will be an absolute authority.”

Judge Anwar Majanni, who is now a legal adviser to The Day After, said forgery networks have thrived during the war, helped by many homeowners losing their documents, while official buildings, court records and title deeds have been destroyed.

Syria’s deteriorating economy has also helped accelerate thefts, with low-earning officials tempted by bribes.

Iman, a doctor whose name has been changed for her security, left Syria in 2017, renting her house to a civil servant. He has since claimed that she agreed to sell it to him, using a forged power of attorney approved by the Syrian consulate in Istanbul.

“I don’t have any real hope to get it back. The responsibility is with the corrupt judiciary and the consulate who made this happen, who issued the document without us even being present. It’s for money, by people who made use of their connections,” she said.

The Syrian justice and defence ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

With the war now in its 13th year, the government has been working to normalise its international standing, holding talks with neighbours such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, recently signed a letter with opposition figures urging President Joe Biden to stop the shift in relations because of the lack of reform by Assad’s government, while Human Rights Watch said Assad has continued to use banned cluster munitions and to divert humanitarian aid.

While fighting is estimated to have destroyed about a third of homes, the regime has also seized or demolished homes in the absence of their owners.

The Guardian, SIRAJ and Lighthouse Reports previously reported the demolition of the previously opposition-held neighbourhood of Qaboun to make way for luxury housing. In March, a pro-regime lawyer suggested abandoned homes in Aleppo, which saw some of the worst fighting, should be appropriated for people still in Syria.

Half of Syria’s population are displaced, and more than 5 million people are refugees. They fear returning while Assad remains in power. Now they wonder what will be left for them to go back to.

“The house confiscation made me lose everything,” said Abdullah.

* Name has been changed to protect identity