Radicalisation is recognised as a dynamic, non-linear process, growing more complex as higher numbers of youth are being drawn into extremism via fast radicalisation processes, which undeniably benefits from the impact of the online space. Such has been apparent throughout Europe. However, it has been a greater concern for some South-eastern European countries, particularly the Western Balkans.
In fact, such has been recognised in several studies and has been emphasised during HOPE’s – ‘Holistic Radicalisation Prevention Initiative’ – events, where concerning data on youth radicalisation has been presented, highlighting the cases of Slovenia and Serbia.
A growing issue among European youths
In Slovenia, youth radicalisation has been on the rise for the last years, with a more significant increase ever since the COVID-19 pandemic stroke Europe. Concerningly, 80%1of a random sample of young Slovenians have confirmed that radicalisation among them is commonplace, especially following the growing time spent on social media. Moreover, 50% have demonstrated that radicalisation manifestations have permeated their school environments2.
A similar situation can be traced down in Serbia, where youth have deepened their inter-ethnic tensions and multi-cultural intolerance in the last years, especially following the impacts of the refugee crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. 3
The impact of youth radicalisation in Europe materialised when, in the last decade, several hundreds of youngsters, some in their late teens, others in their early twenties, and, in some instances, children, left their countries to join foreign conflicts, either motivated by religious, political, or ideological radical viewpoints4. Again, this phenomenon had a higher prevalence in the Western Balkan region
Now, as these foreign fighters make their way back home to their origin countries, many challenges arise, especially as the children who left with their parents return now teens with potential traumas.
In this sense, it is now certain that youth radicalisation and the associated use of violence have become a growing issue for European societies. The issue has a complex and dual nature since there has been a notable increase in hate speech and violent xenophobia, especially due to the current refugee crises, signalling a rise of far-right extremism.
On the other hand, religious radicalisation has also been rising, mostly benefiting from online propaganda and recruitment. Uncovering the dynamics and factors that explain the greater risk of youth radicalisation is complex. Nonetheless, it is agreed that some of it can be explained by societal and communitarian gaps, thus making clear how the investment in the community, namely in civil society organisations, can yield greater benefits.
The crucial role of civil society and youth work
It is now established that working with young people is paramount in P/CVE, emphasising how its comprehensive work doesn’t only require a continuum of intervention, focused on the criminal justice system institutions. There is also the need for preventive and early-on interventive efforts focused on the communities to achieve safer, more cohesive, and integrated societies. Thus, working to build youngsters’ resilience, civic and social participation, as well as democratic, inclusive values is paramount. For such, youth work and organisations are key.
Following the understanding of the European Union, youth work encompasses a series of social, cultural, educational, political, and sports-related activities which are carried out with, by, and for young people via non-formal learning. In this sense, youth work is particularly important as an instrument to prevent radicalisation and mitigate its impacts on violence, focusing on improving youngsters’ lives, including their general long-term development and well-being.
Youth work empowers young people, providing them with the self-determination and control to better face the challenges posed by the current polarised landscape, enhancing their life skills, critical thinking, intercultural competencies, and active citizenship, as well as promoting diversity, respect, and tolerance. Therefore, civil society efforts in youth work create the space for open discussions and provide alternative and positive messages to hate, intolerance and violence, breaking disinformation and radical ideologies.
Considering the ultimate goal of empowering youth, offering them support, learning spaces, and opportunities for positive development and futures, youth organisations target radicalisation at its roots. This goes beyond simply mitigating its manifestations, allowing the identification of radicalisation at very early stages, countering it from the outset. When working with youth with P/CVE aims, it has become clear that:
- A holistic approach should be taken;
- Peer-horizontal and trust-based relationships must be built with youth;
- Partnerships with other relevant agencies and stakeholders, mainly at the communitarian and local level, must be developed;
- Youth must be provided with alternative and positive models of behaviours and attitudes;
- Investment needs to be made to empower young people and build their competencies.
Promoting cooperation through the HOPE project
However, involving civil society actors, namely youth organisations in P/CVE is often challenging, not only because P/CVE is often seen as a strictly securitised area but also because civil society stakeholders might not always have the skills to address radicalisation. Therefore, for maximising the role of civil society and, in specific, youth work on P/CVE, a holistic and comprehensive training approach is required.
That’s what the HOPE – Holistic Radicalisation Prevention Initiative – is doing by tailoring B-learning training programmes to the needs and challenges faced by different relevant sectors, including civil society organisations working with vulnerable and radicalised individuals and those working on socio-structural issues.
Moreover, the HOPE project is also committed to ensuring that long-lasting connections are made in an interdisciplinary and multi-agency way. For this, HOPE is building a European learning hub on radicalisation, working to create and cement partnerships, combining non-governmental and governmental actors to create powerful, comprehensive and holistic synergies between different levels and sectors. For such, an online network is open and free to anyone involved in P/CVE, including prison and probation staff, community organisations’ professionals working closely with the criminal justice system, law enforcement agents, judicial practitioners, trainers and educators, and researchers/academics, aiming to build relevant knowledge and partnerships.
The HOPE – Holistic Radicalisation Prevention Initiative is led by IPS_Innovative Prison Systems (Portugal) in partnership with the University College of Norwegian Correctional Service (Norway), Agenfor International Foundation(Italy), the Euro-Arab Foundation for Advanced Studies (Spain), the Bulgarian Association for Policy Evaluation, the Bulgarian General Directorate “Execution of Sentences”, the Bucharest-Jilava Penitentiary (Romania), the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (Serbia) and the Slovenian Probation Administration (Ministry of Justice).
For more information about the HOPE project, please visit www.hope-radproject.eu
1 Beršnak, J. & Prezelj, I. (2021). Recognizing youth radicalization in schools: Slovenian ‘frontline’ school workers in search of a compass. International Sociology,36(1), 49-70 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0268580920953333
2 Lobnikar, B. (2022, 6 July). Extremist trends in Slovenia: A brief historical and sociological review until today. [Conference presentation]. HOPE 8th Transnational Thematic Workshop (Ljubjana). https://hope-radproject.org/2022/07/19/extremist-trends-in-slovenia-a-brief-historical-and-sociological-review-until-today/
3 Research Centre for Defence and Security (2020, June 19). Interethnic distance, violence and violent extremism leading to terrorism. https://istrazivackicentarob.com/en/2020/06/19/interethnic-distance-violence-and-violent-extremism-leading-to-terrorism-2/
4 Beslin, J. & Ignjatijevic, M. (2017). Balkan foreign fighters: From Syria to Ukraine. European Union Institute for Security Studies. https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief%2020%20Balkan%20foreign%20fighters.pdf