While Donald Trump keeps reciting his mantra about the Mexican border, every week brings news about the construction of a new border wall.

In the past year, Austria, Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, and Tunisia have stated their intention to build walls or barriers along their borders, while Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will renovate or improve existing barriers. Hungary is in the process of reinforcing the subpar one it built less than a year ago.

Although in the aftermath of the Cold War only a dozen walls remained standing, since then almost 70 walls have been or are in the process of being built along 40,000 km of borders. Three-quarters of these have been erected within the last two decades.

Fences topped with barbed wire or razor blades, concrete walls with deep foundations to (unsuccessfully) prevent tunnel-building, infrared cameras and plain barbed wire fences wrapped around concrete pillars — these are now the ways governments typically secure their borders, hoping they will be a quick and visible response to international threats, whether real or perceived.

Today, only a minority of these walls demarcate a de facto boundary, and instead of resolving conflicts, they tend to bring them to deadlock (for example, in Cyprus; between North and South Korea; between India and Pakistan). Mostly they are states’ unilateral initiatives in response to a national security issue. They are employed to fight terrorism (Turkey-Syria, Thailand-Malaysia, Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan), illegal immigration (United States-Mexico, Bulgaria-Turkey, Greece-Turkey), or smuggling (Iran-Pakistan) — even all three simultaneously (India-Bangladesh). But they end up inciting even more border violence.

Far from fixing the problems for which they were erected, walls lead people to find ways to circumvent them: tunnels to transport fighters, drugs, and migrants (on April 21, 2016, American border guards discovered an 800-metre tunnel long the border in San Diego); ramps to cross barriers; submarines where coastal waters enable border-crossing; and using compressed air guns to shoot goods over to the other side.

Walls are also counterproductive, as illegal migrants — afraid to face the ordeal of crossing the border again — tend to stay instead of occasionally returning to their home countries, as they might otherwise have done. For people who really want to get into a walled territory, border barriers are an additional obstacle, but they do not dissuade them from crossing it. Rather than stopping it walls shift the flow of migrants to more dangerous areas, such as deserts, seas and conflict zones.

Walls also encourage criminal groups to take over the border-crossing process using extortion and violence. Thus, migrants become objects in an ever more lucrative market, and the dangers of the border increase.

And now, instead of consisting mostly men trying to make money to send their families left behind as in the past, today the migrants frequently include women (who sometimes take contraceptives before they leave, as rape is an integral part of the migratory process) and, increasingly, unaccompanied children. Europol has recorded 10,000 missing minors.

So, faced with migrants and criminals at their borders, countries embark on an accelerating spiral of ever tighter security, adding more border guards to the barriers, technology and surveillance — the value of the border-security market is estimated at US$16 billion just for 2015 — while the problems the walls are meant to address persist.

Walls are nothing but short-term response to the challenges posed by globalization, such as economic inequality and even the effects of climate change. Until we start to acknowledge the despair of the people affected by the building of walls, change will be slow to come.

To find out more about this topic, see the proceedings of a conference held June 2-3, 2016, in Montreal. The photo shows a large steel fence protecting the border between Mexico and the United States of America — a common place for illegal migrants and drug smugglers to cross. Photo by Shutterstock.


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Élisabeth Vallet
Élisabeth Vallet is director of the Observatoire de géopolitique (Observatory of Geopolitics), part of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair at l’Université du Québec à Montréal.
Françoise Conea
Françoise Conea is coordinator of the Observatoire de géopolitique (Observatory of Geopolitics), part of the Raoul-Dandurand Chair at l’Université du Québec à Montréal.

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