Molenbeek urges Belgium to share information on returning fighters

Molenbeek has an estimated €6 million for social cohesion, but around 20% more would be needed, Sarah Turine said. [Jorge Valero]

Sarah Turine is at the forefront in the fight against radicalisation in Molenbeek. Although she detects that fewer people from her commune have left to join ISIS than suggested in the press, she asked for more resources and access to information to prevent terrorism.

Sarah Turine, a member of the Green Party, is the official in charge of  youth, social cohesion and intercultural dialogue in the municipality of Molenbeek.

Turine spoke to EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero.

Do you feel that Molenbeek is underfunded compared with other communes, or is this a general problem?

No, we can’t say that Molenbeek is less well-funded than other communes, especially as we are part of the “poor crescent”, which brings us extra funding.  But the other levels of power expect the communes to shoulder a lot of responsibility, and this can be a problem. We have a municipal organisation that deals with the community centres, the street workers, the new arrivals and a range of other specific services. This organisation has around 130 workers and a budget of €6 million.

Of these €6 million, €5 million are subsidies from Europe, the federal government, the region, and a small amount from the French and Flemish communities, and €1 million come from the communes’ own budgets. Other communes that do not face these issues do not have to spend this money.

In Molenbeek, where we do have these difficulties, and where the population is poor, we have a lower tax revenue, but a greater need for funding. It is good that a fund exists specifically for activities in the poorer communes. But all the same, we have to find €1 million from somewhere.

There is a regional solidarity fund shared between the communes, but it is insufficient. There are still areas where we cannot work at all due to a lack of personnel, but at the same time, the prime minister has just announced a €400 million security budget.

Of course, we do need tough security measures. But for real, long-lasting security, we also need to work on prevention.

And how much do you think you need? Do these €6 million cover half of your needs? Or 80%?

That is a very difficult question to answer. There are two problems: firstly, to cover the whole commune, we would need 20% more. But secondly, I don’t think it is fair that the commune should be expected to fund these activities. At the moment we provide €1 million out of the €6 million, which is more than 15%, so in fact we would need 35% more in order to cover this as well, otherwise we will still be at a disadvantage compared to the other communes.

What are your needs in terms of workers?

To reach out to the most marginalised young people in society, we need street workers. We have about 30 of these workers, but that is not nearly enough to cover the large area of this commune. Here we have 17,000 young people between 12 and 25 years old, so to do a good job, we need at least another ten street workers.

You have mentioned EU funds. Can you give me any examples of projects that benefit from them?

There are two types of funds. There are the funds like FEDER, which is used largely for infrastructure and very specific projects, for example a digital culture project, which received FEDER funding. And then there are funds for hosting new arrivals, like the AMIF (Fund for Asylum, Migration and Integration). This funding is not for social cohesion, it is not for youth policy, it is specifically for helping newcomers to integrate, including French lessons, citizenship lessons and individual accompaniment to help these people find their way when they arrive in Belgium.

Given the particular needs of Molenbeek in terms of avoiding radicalisation and the integration of young people, have you requested more EU funds to launch special projects focused on these areas?

The EU often opens calls for projects, which are usually very interesting but also very specific. And they tend to focus on a European vision for young people: encouraging youths from here to interact with youths from different countries. This is all well and good, but nothing will come of it if the groundwork has not been done. So what I need now is extra funding to address the needs of the most marginalised young people, but this doesn’t fit into the kinds of projects that are financed by the European Union. And for me, it should be up to the Belgian state to fund this kind of activity.

So you are not looking for extra European funds?

Yes, we do look for these funds. Sometimes we get subsidies for specific projects.

And seeing how much Molenbeek has been in the news recently, have the EU authorities, for example the Commission, contacted you to offer additional support?

Not yet. Maybe they will do so, I hope they will, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Would one of your requests be to facilitate access to EU funds and make the requirements less rigid?

Yes that would be something I would ask. Today, looking for funding has almost become a job in itself. What is very difficult for us is that our staff are out in the field and they do not necessarily have either the time or the competence to respond to all the calls for project proposals. The higher up the political ladder we go, the harder it is to complete an application for funding. So at EU level, we really have to deal with the big funding organisations like FEDER or AMIF, which deal with large sums of money. But for all the smaller applications, we designate one person to bind together the application and the workers on the ground.

Greece has received technical assistance to access EU funding. Would you welcome a similar support either from the Commission or the Belgian government?

Certainly, we would like that too.

Are you aware of an increase in radicalisation in recent months, or even weeks?

We began noticing the phenomenon of young people leaving to fight in Syria in autumn 2013. The first major peak in departures was in summer 2013, then there was another in summer 2014.

In summer 2015, there were fewer departures. And I think that today, after the Paris and Brussels attacks, we will see fewer people leaving to become foreign fighters. The discourse that encourages people to leave, convincing them they are not appreciated here and that they would be better off in an Islamic state, this can work and it can make young people dream of what they might do if they went to Syria.

But I don’t believe these young people are interested in carrying out attacks here and killing people indiscriminately, people that could easily be their mothers or fathers. I think that young people are becoming more and more aware of what IS really is, and I think it will become more difficult for the recruiters to get young people from here to join them.

Have you discussed this with young people who have returned from Syria? Is this view based on some kind of first-hand experience?

I have learned this from talking with young people. Not young people that have returned from Syria, but those that have stayed here. Lots of young people here have been contacted by recruiters, but you must understand that the vast majority of them reject these advances. But when I see the reaction of young people to what is going on in Syria today, compared to how it was a year ago, something has changed. The young people here are less fascinated by what is happening in Syria today, because the attacks on Brussels and Paris do not fit with what they had been told.

Do you know how many young people have returned from Syria in Molenbeek?

I know of 11 people in Molenbeek.

And do you work with the social services regarding these people, or are they treated solely as a security issue?

We can’t do anything, because we are not given the information. We work with young people who are being radicalised and may leave for Syria, we work with the families of those who have left and we do general youth work. But we do not have any information about those who have come back from Syria.

State security does not disclose the information. For two years, I have been saying that our priority should be to support these people. Whether they are in prison or in the community at large, they must also receive specialist psycho-social support. If we do not have the necessary skills here in Molenbeek, we need to find someone who can help get them leave that life behind.

So beyond security considerations, you need people who can help “detox” these people who have returned from Syria.

Exactly, and this does not happen at the moment. They have been doing these experiments in Quebec, in Denmark, what are we waiting for in Belgium? I have been arguing for this for two years. And I can’t even tell you if the figure of 11 people is correct because I am not given the information. That is what we are told, but we are not even allowed to check it.

Has there been a massive campaign in recent days to recruit youth people via SMS?

The recruiters have all sorts of ways to get In touch with people. I have already heard of them using text messages, Facebook, Whatsapp ets. But what I read this morning in The Guardian was that it was a message sent out en masse, which I don’t believe for one moment.

I contacted a number of social workers and asked them about it, and they all told me that they had never heard of this message. So it is possible that a message was sent to a group of young people, or that the message was misunderstood, and that it was in fact related to what I going to happen on Saturday, when a group of right-wing extremists plans to come and hold a demonstration in Molenbeek, claiming they want to expel the Islamists.

This demonstration is of course banned, but it has been doing the rounds on social media and it has created panic. As a result, there are a lot of messages going round encouraging people to come together and show their strength against the extremists. I haven’t seen the message, but I have asked the social workers to keep looking into it.

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