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Government / Local politics

What can cities teach us about tackling radicalisation?

Radicalisation has been thrust into the spotlight following terror attacks in Paris, Brussels and Nice and, while undoubtedly a major security concern, it also highlights numerous social issues at play. Unemployment, poverty, inequality and poor integration leave communities fractured, and individuals at risk of being sucked into radical ideologies that offer an escape from everyday life.

A study in Amsterdam among a small group of returnees from Syria reveals a common set of characteristics: most are under 25, have criminal records, and display a multitude of problems such as mental health issues, poor self image, low self confidence or unsafe home lives. These are often, though not always, young people who lack opportunities or a sense of belonging.

The education system can therefore be a first step towards addressing radicalisation, enabling authorities to spot and report early signs and engage young people in activities. As part of its radicalisation strategy, Helsinki encourages students and young people to get involved in associations and plan school activities and events. Schools in Amsterdam and Ghent have trained staff ready to identify at-risk individuals early enough for the authorities to intervene. Bilbao, meanwhile, works with unaccompanied foreign minors to provide training, workshops, cultural and sports activities.

Radical Islamism may be the most high profile, but it isn’t the only form of radicalisation. Cities’ experiences show the importance of addressing all types of radicalisation, including hate crimes, political extremism and Islamophobia. Focusing on a single target group can be counterproductive, risking further tensions and stigmatisation. Ghent intentionally avoids targeting groups according to religion in its local action plan for fear of generating a “them against us” culture. Other cities are concerned with different types of radicalisation, like political – far right or left – groups in Brno, Dresden and Tampere; while Hamburg set up a prevention network in 2014 to address Islamophobia as well as violent religious extremism.

Building relations within communities is far more important than creating divisions. Anti-radicalisation efforts in Bilbao are embedded in the city’s programmes to manage religious diversity by maintaining and developing relations with all religious communities. Other cities have channels to directly address residents’ concerns and alleviate tensions. Rotterdam organises meetings between local residents and the city. Following last November’s Paris attacks, these drew hundreds of people from different backgrounds to discuss freedom of expression, radicalisation, extremism, discrimination and integration.

The terror attacks and ongoing refugee situation have put more media scrutiny and greater pressure on cities to get it right, and have exacerbated underlying tensions. Helsinki has been prompted to strengthen its integration policies by allocating a further €10m and boosting funding for multicultural outreach, with the aim of promoting dialogue and trust between asylum seekers and local residents.


European cities find themselves operating under different conditions. Some work under national frameworks like the UK’s Prevent strategy, while others have been left much to their own devices, like Belgian cities Antwerp and Ghent.

But what is commonly recognised is the need to cooperate with different partners. Working with social services, schools, grassroots organisations, community leaders and the police is common practice in European cities. Gothenburg’s “Safe in Gothenburg” programme is a collaboration between police and city authorities, while in Amsterdam the mayor meets regularly with the police and public prosecutor to determine threats and priorities. Highly-trained personnel are also needed, and cities such as these have hired several experienced staff in the past year. This costs money, and funding can come from a variety of sources: from the cities themselves, through national programmes such in Leeds and Manchester, identified as priority areas under Prevent, or through EU funds, like in Bologna.

Given that many cities are in the early stages of their anti-radicalisation work, it is hard yet to measure impact. This makes networks like EUROCITIES all the more important, as we offer an outlet for cities to share what works and what doesn’t, and get inspired by others.

We need to make our societies more inclusive and integrated to get to the heart of this challenge. Radicalisation may be a major concern at national and European level, but it is in cities that we can really prevent it by addressing it at the root causes.

You can find out more about this subject in EUROCITIES’ report, “City responses on preventing radicalisation and violent extremism: social inclusion as a tool?’”. The report is supported by the European Commission’s Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

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