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Life is gradually improving in Cureghem, a multi-ethnic district in Brussels, but the same cannot be said of disaffected, radicalized Molenbeek across the canal.

Life is gradually improving in Cureghem, a multi-ethnic district in Brussels, but the same cannot be said of disaffected, radicalized Molenbeek across the canal.

Justin Jin for The Globe and Mail

Perpetrators of recent Western terror attacks have largely hailed from a small number of struggling European neighbourhoods. International expert and Globe columnist Doug Saunders has spent the last year researching approaches to building better communities. Here's how we can avert extremism before it starts

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.

This story is part of a special Globe series. Visit the Crossings series page here.

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.

Molenbeek is the neighbourhood in Brussels where the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, spent most of his life. The son of successful non-religious, university-educated Moroccan immigrants, he is said to have come back from a trip to Syria determined to set Europe aflame. Abaaoud was killed in a police raid in Paris this week.

Molenbeek is the neighbourhood in Brussels where the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks, 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, spent most of his life. The son of successful non-religious, university-educated Moroccan immigrants, he is said to have come back from a trip to Syria determined to set Europe aflame. Abaaoud was killed in a police raid in Paris this week.

Justin Jin for The Globe and Mail

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.

A Canadian flag flies from an apartment balcony in the Riverdale neighbourhood of Hamilton, Ont. Riverdale is a high-rise immigrant neighbourhood with the third-largest concentration of immigrants in Canada, and growing fast.

A Canadian flag flies from an apartment balcony in the Riverdale neighbourhood of Hamilton, Ont. Riverdale is a high-rise immigrant neighbourhood with the third-largest concentration of immigrants in Canada, and growing fast.

Peter Power for The Globe and Mail

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.

A placard promoting a more peaceful Molenbeek was on display this week after security was tightened in the wake of the carnage in Paris. But something about the district has soured the immigrant experience so much that many young men drop out of school and turn to drug abuse, petty crime and, in some cases, extremism.

A placard promoting a more peaceful Molenbeek was on display this week after security was tightened in the wake of the carnage in Paris. But something about the district has soured the immigrant experience so much that many young men drop out of school and turn to drug abuse, petty crime and, in some cases, extremism.


Prevention is better than cure

How do we prevent, in advance, a Molenbeek from taking shape decades after a group of ambitious newcomers arrive? Or keep the next group of refugees – and there will be many more than the 25,000 being processed now – from falling into intergenerational poverty and isolated, second-class lives?

Our research – which includes contributors from the Global Diversity Exchange at Ryerson University, Germany's Bertelsmann Foundation, the Brussels-based Cities Alliance and other urban and academic institutions – examined four groups of barriers that tend to leave immigrant-origin communities stuck.

1The first set of barriers is physical, involving housing, neighbourhoods and transportation.

It's important to allow immigrants and refugees, after their initial settlement, to join clusters of other people from the same background, in places where they can help each other out. A strong body of research has shown that integration happens faster and more effectively when immigrants settle in common districts. Isolation tends to breed alienation (and, in English-speaking countries, extremism tends to emerge from isolated individuals in non-immigrant neighbourhoods; "ethnic" districts are less prone to extremism).

This often involves turning scattered, low-density districts on the outskirts – the sort that often become immigration centres today – into tighter-knit, more intensely busy places by encouraging infill property development. It involves eliminating zoning and property-use restrictions that prevent immigrants from creating shops, restaurants and light-industrial enterprises in their residential areas.

Density helps integration, if managed smartly. By increasing the flow of pedestrians through a neighborhood, density populates public spaces and creates an environment in which newcomers – particularly women – feel comfortable outside their homes. Increased physical proximity in a secure environment encourages clusters of commercial activity and social vitality to emerge, attracting not only more newcomers, but locals from surrounding communities, as well. Density, together with the commercial activity it stimulates, then justifies investments in transit infrastructure by the government, which helps newcomers reach economic opportunities in other neighborhoods of the city.

Toronto's "Tower Renewal" zoning initiative, permitting the development of dense housing and retail spaces between apartment blocks, is worth encouraging, and expanding to other cities.

Removing physical obstacles often involves putting frequent bus and rapid-transit routes into neighbourhoods of immigrant settlement – not just to get people to their jobs and back, but also to attract customers to the clusters of immigrant-run business, restaurants and culture.

Here, we should study the way Barcelona redeveloped its Nou Barris region – a sprawl of unconnected high-rise developments which the city tied into a neighbourhood using a transit and community hub between the buildings, turning Nou Barris into a destination that attracts shoppers and restaurant-goers rather than a barren wasteland that people try to escape. Or Amsterdam's Bijlmermeer suburb, whose spiral into crime and marginality was reversed after a high-speed rail hub and immigrant-run retail became its centrepiece.

Home ownership has been the centrepiece of immigrant success, in every English-speaking country (and, interestingly, in the more successful immigrant quarters of Belgium) for the last century: Canadian immigrants often buy housing at a greater rate than native-born Canadians We need tools to allow them to have a property stake in today's less affordable economy.

It's worth emulating one of Brussels's more successful interventions, the community land trust, in which community groups purchase blocks of urban land and sell high-density housing to immigrants at below-market rates using managed, affordable leases which allow the buyers to benefit from the rising value of the property as they make improvements. (This benefit is split with the property trust agency, and owners can only sell the property back to the agency, to avoid flipping.)

And it's worth encouraging banks to offer flexible mortgages to newcomers who don't have established credit histories. Canada has a head start here: Several of its big banks have been particularly good at this, some of them even signing up immigrants before they leave their countries of origin.

2The second group of barriers are institutional: those that prevent immigrants from having their credentials recognized, their health care and social crises addressed, and that stand in the way of their children getting the education and assistance they need.

Absolutely crucial here are schools: Too many school systems have built-in incentives for children – especially male offspring of immigrants – to drop out early. While Canadian cities have considerable experience with educating classes of mixed experience (and we know these mixes are good educationally, for both newcomers and established Canadian students), many school boards today are providing only one teacher per class. A larger class size with multiple teachers and teaching assistants offering several levels of education is a recipe for inclusion.

Even better, as Zurich and London have both learned, is to put a top-quality magnet school in an immigrant or refugee district – one good enough that middle-class kids from established neighbourhoods will seek admission, and the immigrant kids will compete to get in. Such schools can transform the fates of entire communities. Zurich's magnet-schools program, QUIMS (Quality in Multi-Ethnic Schools), was so successful that it has been expanded to 100 schools across the region, all offering extra staff for the assistance of newcomers and their children.

3Third are economic barriers. Key here is small business. Previous immigrant groups have succeeded in Canada and other Western countries because they've been able to set up shop, in an ad hoc way, without many bureaucratic or legal barriers. This is tougher today: It is increasingly difficult for immigrants to find low-cost spaces on streets with pedestrian traffic, in which they can start a business; they often live in areas where there are few such spaces at all. When they do get a space, they discover that licensing, regulatory and hygiene requirements often impose impossible costs on a small-scale business: The need to install, say, a $40,000 ventilation system has scuppered many a promising immigrant food enterprise.

It would be worth emulating Boston's "Back Streets" program, which relaxes business and licensing regulations in low-income areas in order to allow dense, informal and more improvised markets that appeal to visitors and give migrants an easy entry point to the world of commerce.

And new immigrants need business skills. Indeed, often a targeted on-the-job skills-training program can produce far more benefits than social assistance or social work. Here, it would be worth emulating Toronto's Thorncliffe Park district, which runs a training supermarket, in which all the employees are being taught accounting, inventory, management and information-technology skills to bring them into more-skilled parts of the workforce.

Or, in fact, Molenbeek itself. Its impressive training hotel takes bookings on all the popular travel sites, boasts of being near the historic core of Brussels, and has a rotating staff who are all learning hospitality-industry and management skills. (It's one of many impressive interventions in Molenbeek, most of which arrived too late for the current, troubled generation.)

Governments can play a big role in turning immigrant failure into success simply by promoting immigrant neighbourhoods as places to shop, eat and do business. Too often, governments do the opposite, trying to keep visitors and tourists away from poor immigrant areas (this is a big problem in European cities). Giving a district a name, an identity, a prominently publicized mass-transit stop and some resources to make it more amenable to outside customers – programs to spruce up shopfronts and restaurant patios, street signs, sidewalk-widening programs – can turn a lost immigrant area into one teeming with people.

4Fourth are citizenship and inclusion barriers, both legal (the ability to become a citizen) and de facto (the ability to participate in the community and have access to the resources of the government with or without citizenship). There is probably nothing more threatening to integration than having a large population living in your city on a more or less permanent basis without a pathway to full, legal citizenship.

Germany learned this the hard way, when two million Turks went 40 years without access to citizenship, and became an isolated, lost generation who couldn't invest in their communities or futures. (In recent years, German Turks have become citizens in greater numbers, and now are becoming a success story.) The United States is still learning this with its 12 million long-term residents, many of them born in the U.S. These people are "illegal," and thus lack the privileges of citizenship, including full education access. The result: an enormous lost opportunity.

Ambitious immigrants, if they don't know they'll become citizens, won't invest in their communities, start legal businesses, put their kids in higher education or enter the financial or political system: They'll be stranded. Whether we call them "illegal aliens" or "temporary foreign workers," we're risking failed integration – not just for them but for the wider community around them – if we put up barriers to citizenship, inclusion, voting and economic participation.

Refugees are especially in need of de facto (and eventually legal) citizenship recognition. All refugees are also, on some level, regular immigrants: They are seeking a safer and more stable place for their families, which entails having a job, a secure house, and the ability to affect their surroundings. Some countries, such as Sweden, have left refugees in dangerous limbo by forbidding them from seeking work until they've learned the language, if at all. They're left with little to do but hang around public squares and malls, creating a negative public image that helps spread anti-refugee rhetoric, all because the newcomers are barred from normal life.

The most successful and non-controversial refugee groups are those that are transformed, as quickly as possible, into regular "economic" immigrants: If they're included quickly in the employment, education and housing systems of the established immigrant community, they will be more likely to stabilize their lives, give up their temporary mindset and become valuable members of their communities.

If we fear for the futures of our newly settled refugees – or worry that the 300,000 immigrants who settle in our cities every year won't live the Canadian dream of the previous millions – then we need to step back and look at what has worked. We need to follow the dotted line that leads from a faraway country, through a low-cost neighbourhood somewhere, into the centre of our economies and lives. And we need to see where that line may be interrupted, and restore its path. Integration is something that happens, naturally, if we provide the right footholds.

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail's international affairs columnist.