Five weeks ago, I was walking though the immigrant-filled districts of western Brussels, which straddle a 19th-century industrial canal, with some local residents. They were proud of their neighbourhood. In the decade since I’d first visited, Cureghem (on the canal’s east side) and Molenbeek (on the west) had transformed from barren, down-at-the-heels places to lively scenes of bustling commerce and street life.
Then we stopped at an odd row of half-abandoned fashionable restaurants and shops. Their owners had moved away or scaled back, a local politician among the group told me, because Moroccan gangs had pressured them, or had made street life too dangerous for employees. “They’re our biggest problem,” he said, gesturing to the old, largely Moroccan district across the canal in Molenbeek. “Every gain we make here is set back by these guys.”
As it happened, we were standing a few dozen metres from the house where one of those guys, 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had grown up and begun formulating his plans for a spectacular act of violence. His text message last Friday triggered this decade’s bloodiest Western terrorist attack, killing 129 people in multiple locations in Paris. (He died in a hail of French police bullets this week.) The suicide attackers included at least three other young men from Mr. Abaaoud’s criminal circle in Molenbeek.
What turned these young European-born men and many of their neighbours – who generally came from non-religious, educated backgrounds – into violent extremists? Why do most immigrant communities succeed, but a few fall into marginal, dangerous patterns?
That is one of the crucial questions of our age, looming over Europe’s broken neighbourhoods, Canada’s efforts to settle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, and the success or failure of the next generations of immigration.
The Paris attacks, and our widening awareness of the neighbourhoods that produced their perpetrators, have thrown this question into stark relief.
A decade and a half of attacks, incidents and arrests have shown that Islamic extremism tends to attract those native-born men of immigrant descent who in other respects are thoroughly integrated into Western life: those whose origins, like those of Mr. Abaaoud and the members of his circle, are fluent, culturally integrated, middle-class or comfortably working-class, generally non-religious and in many cases non-Muslim. The popular conceptions are wrong: They are not refugees and they are not immigrants.
They tend to be Westerners, however, who have life experiences – not generally seen in their parents – that include dropping out of secondary school, engaging in drug abuse and petty criminality , and time in the penal system.
And in Europe, those sorts of men tend to come from specific neighbourhoods where those experiences aren’t uncommon. The men of Molenbeek also played a part in the Charlie Hebdo killings, the Jewish museum slaying in Brussels last year, and the thwarted AK-47 slaying this summer on a Paris-bound train, among other incidents. The young men who carried out the July 7, 2005, attacks in London came from specific, crime- and extremism-prone neighbourhoods in the northern cities of Leeds and Bradford.
These are clearly cases of “failed integration,” a phrase popular in the press this week, but it isn’t entire ethnic groups, religions or cultures whose second generation has gone off the rails – it’s certain places, and specific clusters of people in specific neighbourhoods.
Why is it that Molenbeek is most famous for producing these concentrations of criminality and extremism, while across the canal in Cureghem (and even in several corners of Molenbeek itself), you now find many streets where Congolese, Turks, Bosnians, and Moroccans are succeeding in business life? Why has Paris’s Saint-Denis become a place that produces angry extremism, while one district away is Belleville, a quarter that has produced upward mobility for multiple waves of newcomers, including many from those same parts of Arab North Africa. Why do Pakistanis in northern English cities fare badly, on average, while Bangladeshis in southern England are now more successful, in education and other key measures, than are English people overall?
What makes some places turn immigrant families into leaders of business, education and political and cultural life, while other places turn people with the same origins into marginal, invisible, isolated and sometimes violent people?
That question is the subject of a new approach to the problem of integration. For the past year, I’ve been conducting research as part of an international project, commissioned and directed by World Bank senior economist Manjula Luthria, to examine the factors that make integration work, those that stand in its way, and the best international approaches to removing those obstacles.
This project, and the report it will produce, is part of a shift in international-development thinking away from looking at emigration as a simple movement of labour (and sometimes remittance money) across borders, and toward viewing immigrant success itself as a potent form of international development, and as a way to defuse major international problems.
Migration is not just about simple movement, but involves the creation of networks of people in multiple countries exchanging knowledge, credit, investment, social and financial capital. When those networks crash, dangerous things can happen.
Our research kept returning to one conclusion: Immigration works best when cities and countries prepare the ground in advance by making small investments and institutional changes that give new immigrants foot-holds, rather than waiting for failures to occur and then resorting to the big, expensive and far more difficult interventions required to fix them. Putting a magnet school, of better quality and with more resources than most middle-class schools, in an immigrant suburb; improving a transportation line; or relaxing small-business regulations on a block where many immigrants are settling can raise the fortunes of countless families, before they arrive.
This is doubly true for refugees: While they tend to be successful and very loyal citizens after settlement, they often arrive without the careful investments, specific plans and pre-existing networks of support that most immigrants experience. It is extra important to prepare the ground for them (Canada’s sponsorship system helps this happen, to some extent), and to avoid placing any restrictions on their ability to work, do business, attend schools and invest in their communities. The places where refugees succeed are in countries that turn them into regular “economic” immigrants as soon as possible, as there is no more important form of safety than leading a normal life in work, education and housing.
To plan in advance for immigration and refugee settlement, you need to understand the pathways that successful migrants follow, and the potential obstacles that will trip them up.
How communities get stuck
Belgium’s Moroccans, Mr. Abaaoud’s people, are an extreme illustration of the dangers of blocked ambitions. They did not come to the table with an easy hand, and weren’t dealt anything much better by their new country. Their migration was the product of an agreement reached in 1964 between the government of Belgium, which needed tens of thousands of workers for its booming postwar factories, and King Hassan of Morocco, who wanted foreign aid and had also just fought off a rebellion from his country’s northern tribal fringes.
The King seized on the agreement and used it, as one historian wrote, to “mitigate rebellious tendencies in several Berber areas” by shipping his least favourite subjects, the very poor, illiterate and deliberately marginalized Rif Mountain tribesmen, off to Brussels and Antwerp for life. They were, in a sense, refugees, except that nobody wanted to sponsor them.
They did well in blue-collar work, in shipyards and factories – until those sectors began to collapse in the 1970s. Then they were stuck. While they had the usual immigrant ambitions and hopes for their children, and some used education and small business to raise their fortunes, most had never been to school, and had no idea how to direct their children through Belgium’s rigid and traditional school system, which is almost uniquely ill-designed for classrooms whose students have a mix of origins.
And the schools in their neighbourhoods got worse and worse; many of the non-immigrant students, and the better teachers, departed, causing a downward spiral in educational quality. The Moroccan neighbourhoods were neglected and provided with few resources, from subway stations to skills training to, even, bridges over the canal. The residents themselves had entrepreneurial ambitions but it was damningly difficult to start a legal business, to get a licence or to use your housing space as a restaurant or shop. The city did nothing to bring customers to them; in fact, it warned people away. And the generous Belgian employment-benefits system was denied these Belgian newcomers, because they were kept out of the full-time labour force: Their Moroccan surnames and insalubrious addresses on a resumé were enough to prevent them from getting a respectable full-time job.
In short, the Moroccans of Brussels were a sharply pointed version of every immigration-failure story.
When it started to become apparent that some of their kids were falling off the edge of society, the first policy responses were slow to arrive, and were often badly misguided.
A generation ago, the big public fear was not failed integration but non-integration: It was widely thought that some groups of immigrants wouldn’t adopt the values, customs and affinities of Western life but would instead remain mired in closed “parallel societies,” sticking with the norms and folkways of their countries of origin, ignoring the new world around them.
This, it turns out, has not really happened, not to any major immigrant community. It was a misreading of reality: These immigrants weren’t retreating into an atavistic Moroccan life; they were trying to survive without the help of the city around them, even if that meant grey-market economies and crime.
The real threat is not that integration won’t be sought by immigrants, who’ve generally been adept, wherever they’re from, at finding a bottom rung on the urban ladder. Rather, the threat is that this ladder will lack a second or third rung, leaving those who have done the hard work building the foundations of integration without any opportunities to propel their families into the larger society, education system and economy.
In the last 15 or 20 years, Brussels has become more enlightened, and has made a number of impressive investments in Molenbeek and Cureghem (or has tried to: With its 19 independent municipal governments, Brussels has a hard time making changes). There are better rapid-transit links, some innovations in schools, a fully equipped training hotel in Molenbeek designed to teach hospitality skills, a successful program to promote Cureghem as a food-and-culture destination, and informal small-business areas. These have had great success in changing the outcomes for the next generation – but have arrived too late for the lost young men of Molenbeek.
In Canada: an enviable track record, but work to be done
Canadians have little experience with this sort of failure – but also, as a result, less experience with the interventions needed to turn it around. The self-integration of newcomers to Canada has, with some exceptions, generally been a successful and fairly uninterrupted process.
This is in large part because the Canadian immigrant and refugee communities of the 20th century got lucky. There was housing available, to rent or buy at low cost, in the dense downtown cores of cities, and they could use the rising value of that housing to finance small business and education. It was easy to start businesses, shops or restaurants, and there were customers nearby. Most blue-collar jobs were full-time and permanent. Citizenship was easy to obtain, and, in general, there was more patience in Canadian society for the long path of integration, in which, whatever the culture or nationality, the first generation rarely learns the language and the second generation often fares badly in school.
If we were lucky before, in the coming years Canada will need to get skilled.
The next immigrants and refugees won’t always have the same easy landing pads. Immigration today takes place almost entirely in the suburbs, often in sprawling apartment-block neighbourhoods ill-designed for struggling newcomers and lacking spaces for business or transportation links. The immigrant economy relies more on informal employment and temporary work. And newcomers have a much harder time using home ownership as their main platform for success.
We have the enormous benefits of pre-existing immigrant communities from almost every country to offer networks of mutual assistance and support: Syrian refugees settling in established Arabic districts such as Montreal’s Saint-Michel and Saint-Laurent neighbourhoods or in Scarborough’s Lawrence East district (sometimes called “Lawrence of Arabia”) are more likely to get help finding full-time work and higher education with the help of their neighbours than they are to fall into isolation and alienation.
But many of our cities also have high housing costs, which push new immigrants into the lowest-priced, least supported districts: the high-rise fringes, the rooming-house quarters, the half-abandoned places, the most remote neighbourhoods, the postindustrial wastelands. And even well established immigrant neighbourhoods can fall prey to the education, employment and institutional failures that can lead the Canadian-born second generation into dangerous dead ends.
Prevention is better than cure…