Radicalisation leading to violence among young people has become a growing issue of concern in Europe and its neighbouring regions, including the Western Balkans. There is a notable increase in hate speech in the social media, incidence of hate crimes and attacks on migrants, refugees and others that are, or seem in some way different, propaganda  and violent xenophobia, as well as a rise in religious and political extremism and in terrorist attacks.

On the one hand, there has been an increase in religious radicalization of young people born and raised in Europe, particularly in countries such as France, Belgium and Germany, as as well as in countries of the Western Balkans ,where the history of conflict based on nationality, religion and ethnicity plays a particular role. On the other hand, we are witnessing a parallel development of right-wing radicalisation in these same countries, but also in other parts of the wider Europe. Different types of radicalisation often co-exist and feed into each other.

How does youth work help to prevent young people’s violent radicalisation? Our strategy of approaching the issue

In order to determine and illustrate the role of youth work in this regard, a variety of partners  – the SALTO EuroMed, SALTO EECA and SALTO SEE Resource Centres, the National Agencies of the Erasmus+: Youth in Action programme of France, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United Kingdom, and the Partnership between the Council of Europe and the European Commission in the field of youth  – have come together to research and showcase positive ways and initiatives in which youth radicalisation leading to violence can be addressed and prevented, and examine how we can strengthen the role of different actors, in an attempt to compile a long-term strategy about youth work against radicalisation leading to violence.

The wide geographical context and the interregional approach of this strategy offers a unique opportunity to compare and learn from different approaches, find out more about what is specific for a particular environment and focus, and which practices and experiences can be transferred to other contexts.

What do we mean by »youth work against violent radicalisation«? An attempt at coming to terms with concepts and terminology

To start with, we needed extensive discussions to define the issue we want to tackle, to clarify for us how we understand »radicalisation«, »extremism« and »violent radicalisation«, and how we understand and want to address the role of youth work in this context.

Our understanding is the following[1]: Radicalisation is a process through which young people have grown to accept and support changes in society which are against the existing order[2], while the term “radicalisation leading to violence” refers to the process of adopting an extremist belief system – including the intent to use, encourage or facilitate violence – in order to promote an ideology, a political project or a cause as a means of social transformation. Violent radicalisation may occur as young people are influenced by ethnocentric or other ideologies and societal influences, or if they face potential social exclusion and marginalisation for various reasons, including, but not limited to the broader political context in their countries and the world, poverty, unemployment and underemployment, disability, lack of education, racism, discrimination due to ethnicity, origin, religion, sexual orientation etc., and their resulting questioning of their social, national and ethnic identity, and feelings of injustice and frustration due to limited opportunities.

Radicalisation leading to violence of young people has an impact on their wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing and stability of their communities and the entire European continent, as it challenges democratic values of the society. The threat of this type of radicalisation needs to be recognised and prevented through early interventions, which can help increase young people’s resilience to extremism. Some of the ways to work with young people to address these challenges include positive development of their identity through social networks – parents, families, peers and community -, promotion of social coherence, stability, a safe, positive and socially-inclusive environment and provision of opportunities. Youth work, through its values and practices, represents also a means of supporting young people’s inclusion and participation in society.

Although the youth sector cannot be the panacea to violent radicalisation, youth work can, together with education and other sectors, play a key role in preventing it in early stages by supporting young people’s development, promoting democratic principles, active citizenship, intercultural dialogue and inclusion, and helping youth become active participants in society.

First steps and findings of the strategy

As a first step, in the first half of this year, we did some desk research to establish a theoretical framework and then published a call for »inspiring practices« from the youth field. In the meantime, 17 practices have been selected and analysed, including 6 from the Western Balkan region. One  important criteria was that practices should go beyond promoting young people’s empowernment and tolerance of diversity in general, but address  the issue of violent radicalisation in a more targeted way.

The practices that we were able to collect within this research can by no means be expected to be representative, but they offer some interesting insights. The received practices from the Western Balkans address right-wing radicalism leading to violence of young people in relation to other population groups based on nationality, religion or ethnicity within and between the countries of the region, linked to history of conflict in the region, but also religious radicalisation and the danger of joining radical and violent movements (ISIS). Activities are diverse, including online and offline campaigns, training of youth workers, workshops, discussions with school students, street actions and other community activities as well as research, policy debates with other stakeholders and cooperation in drafting of relevant policies.

A common thread seems to be that youth workers tend to deal with the prevention of radicalisation leading to violence in a holistic way, linking it to intercultural education, peace education , human rights and other related issues. Important elements of successful or promising approaches are building of trust and peer learning, providing young people with positive role models and alternative life stories, and  promoting  their empowerment and the development of their overall competences and life skills. Youth work can be more effective when itdeals directly and explicitly with radical messages and does not shy away from them. Importantly also, the practices show that cooperation with other partners of the community is essential to successfully address the complex nature of radicalisation leading to violence.

What happens next?

From 27 November – 1 December 2017, around 100 participants (youth work practitioners and  other experts  in the field) will meet in Malta for an international conference. There, we want to look into inspiring practices and the first tentative findings of the research and discuss them further: What practices are particularly helpful for my own work? What can be transferred from one socio-political context to another?  What are challenges? What do we need most to increase the impact of our work?

The research findings will be finalised and published after the conference, a draft version might be available earlier. For 2018, we are planning training for youth workers and youth leaders on this topic, possibly also the production of educational tools looking into the transferability of good practices.

If you’re interested, stay tuned!

For more information, check the activity website https://www.salto-youth.net/about/regionalcooperation/current/againstviolentradicalisation/ and the SALTO SEE Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/SALTO-YOUTH-South-East-Europe-Resource-Centre-359995264196045/, where we will be announcing news and the link to live coverage of parts of the conference.

[1] Larger parts of this article, which describe the conceptual framework and tentative findings of the research have been copied or adapted from the draft of the research  carried out in the framework of this strategy. Miguel Angel Garcia Lopez and Lana Pasic, to be published by end 2017.

[2] European Union. 2017. The contribution of youth work to preventing marginalisation and radicalisation potentially resulting in violent behaviour. A practical toolbox for youth workers and youth organisations and recommendations to policy makers. Results of the expert group set up under the European Union Work Plan for Youth for 2016-2018. Publications Office of the European Union: Luxembourg.

Sonja Mitter Škulj

This text was written as a part of Divided Past – Joint Future project and it does not represent nor reflects attitudes and viewpoints of the European Union, its institutions and bodies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the text lies entirely with the author. 

About the author

Sonja Mitter Škulj coordinates the SALTO South East Europe Resource Centre, one of several SALTO-YOUTH Resource Centres established by the European Commission to support the Erasmus+ programme in the field of youth. The Centre promotes and supports the participation of the Programme’s Partner Countries in the Western Balkans in the Erasmus+ programme; it is hosted by MOVIT, the Slovenian National Agency for Erasmus+, youth chapter. Before moving to Ljubljana in 2001, Sonja worked as educational advisor in the Youth Directorate of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, where she got involved in development of youth work in/with the Western Balkans as well as (what was then called) Euro-Arab dialogue; within the then newly created Council of Europe-European Commission Youth Partnership in the field of youth, she founded the magazine ‘Coyote’. Sonja comes from Frankfurt/M, Germany; she holds a M.A. in history (focus on history of migration) from the University of Madison, Wisconsin and lives with her husband and two sons in Ljubljana.

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