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Belgium Immigration Challenges Have A Long Past


Ever since this week's bombings in Brussels, we've been hearing more about the neighborhoods where the people involved in the attacks lived. So we were wondering why and how Belgium became a home base for extremists, including those involved in earlier attacks in Paris. So we called Demetrios Papademetriou. He is the president of the European division of the Migration Policy Institute, and he started by telling us about a 1950s guest-worker program intended to help Europe's growing industries.

DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU: They needed labor and we mean here labor, in other words, people who will simply do the hard work in industries that eventually will be phased out. And the linguistic requirements meant that most of the people that went to Belgium came from North Africa because they were speaking French. Since these were labor contracts, the idea was that if you had a contract for two or three years you would simply go back to your home country and then...

MARTIN: But that didn't happen...

PAPADEMETRIOU: It did not happen, so by 1974 essentially, you had the beginnings of communities from North Africa - particularly Morocco - that are still the dominant communities in Belgium today.

MARTIN: And the people in these communities, is it that they don't see themselves or are they not seen as integrated into the rest of Belgium, or is it both?

PAPADEMETRIOU: Well, if you continue to think that these people don't belong there, that sometime or somehow they will simply go back, you do not invest in trying to make them part of the rest of the society, which means that the people in question are not going to invest in their engagement with the majority community.

MARTIN: And, you know, to that end though, you know, obviously that there's an argument and a very loud one going on, both in parts of Europe and in the United States - it has to be said - about whether these kinds of terrorist activities are rooted in ideology, or is it rooted in social problems?

PAPADEMETRIOU: It all depends how deeply you want to go. This community's essentially self-isolated and, of course, self-isolation leads to marginalization and...

MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait, wait, hold on though - you're saying that they self-isolated - is that really true given that if they don't really have any standing in the economy, do they have any other choices?

PAPADEMETRIOU: Well, they, in a sense, could have demanded greater participation. I think everyone was perfectly happy for these folks to go their own way and for the majority community to go its own way. So this is simply a continuation of the kinds of things that started 30 and 40 and 50 years ago.

MARTIN: So have these attacks caused there to be a, you know, broader conversation and thought about the issues that you have just highlighted?

PAPADEMETRIOU: Yes. But as you know, beginning to have a real conversation and looking into those kinds of things and developing the curiosity that is essential if you're going to address, you know, issues like this which is - let's try to figure out let's say education, ghettoization, all of those things - asking the questions is the very first, the very beginning of trying to figure out what the problem is and then to try to think about solutions.

MARTIN: Are people now looking at these communities, looking at the migrants or looking at the people who have origins in migration - the, you know, Muslim migrants, people who were perhaps born there but don't feel fully included - are people taking a look at this now?

PAPADEMETRIOU: Yes, and you have foundations, private foundations, that are beginning to look at those issues and invest money in creating, you know, organizations that will actually address these issues, but all of those things will take time to bear fruit.

MARTIN: That was Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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