Good Fences (don't) Make Good Neighbors
9th of November 1989: This date secured a spot in the annals of history for marking the fall of the Berlin Wall (pictured above), a symbol of the Iron Curtain between the Soviet-dominated communist nations and the Western democracies. The event was celebrated around the world and it prompted the desire for a borderless Europe, maybe even a borderless world.
Free movement – of people, services and capital – is indeed a cornerstone of Union citizenship. Yet, since 1989 new walls have been erected and existing ones have been fortified, to such an extent that the idea of a borderless world seems nothing but wishful thinking.
As political leaders around the world reinvigorate the idea of a physical border wall – a wall that protects the identity of their nation and safeguards its security – it is worth taking the time to reflect upon the consequences that stem from building a wall between and across countries.
Consequences of Building a Wall
Some call them walls, others call them barriers, or even fences; yet, this is a mere matter of semantics insofar as, regardless of their name, they all serve the same purpose, and that is to create social division. But let’s untangle the matter: apart from the most blatant monetary costs that stem from its construction, what are the main consequences of building a wall?
First and foremost, physical border walls hinder, by nature, a person’s freedom of movement. Limits on human mobility have a great deal detrimental effects, insofar as they split communities, cause economic hardships, undermine trading relationships, disrupt routines and jeopardize health and education.
Secondly, more often than not, walls impede cross-border cooperation. They indeed act not only as physical but also as psychological barriers by perpetuating antipathies and giving rise to feelings of insecurity and mistrust.
Thirdly, walls redefine human relations by feeding an insider-outsider dichotomy and creating a divide between "us" and "them". What is more, “securitization of border” discourses have often acted as a means to overcome internal societal divisions, insofar as they are instrumental in classifying the “others” as a security threat as well as dehumanizing whoever stands on the other side of the wall.
The Walls Still Standing The era of wishful thinking about the emergence of a borderless world has been superseded by an era of perceived insecurity – caused by immigration, terrorism, xenophobia. Be that as it may, this has given rise to the building of a myriad of walls and fences that impede human mobility and foster societal division; let’s take a look some of these walls.
The wall between Mexico and the United States of America is approximately 3.200 km long. The wall has become the symbol of Trump’s presidency; yet, its construction began in 1990, when US President George W. Bush approved the initial miles of fencing. The aim of the wall was to taper transportation of illegal drugs and illegal immigration from Latin America. Since then, US administration has been spending billions of dollars in the attempt to secure its borders.
The US-Mexico Border Wall.
Nonetheless, instead of acting as an efficient deterrent, the wall merely changed the modalities and costs involved in crossing the Mexico-US border, but it is far from eradicating the issue of illegal immigration.
Spain and Morocco Under Spanish administration, yet located in mainland Africa, Ceuta and Melilla are the last vestiges of Spanish rule in Morocco. Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative, Foreign Affairs, noted,
“Europe was built on the idea that walls have to come down. It was built on the idea of coming together. Of overcoming differences. Of united. Walls are never the solution."
Yet, Spain has built — with funding from the EU – a fortified border in the cities of Ceuta and Melilla: the first wall built in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its raison d’etre is to contain illegal immigration; nonetheless, despite the obstacles posed by border patrols, electric wires and high fences, a large number of migrants manage to enter Europe through its “back door” by crossing the wall in Ceuta or Melilla.
Spain-Morocco Border being crossed by migrants.
In effect, according to UNHCR, in 2018 5.700 people (mostly of Syrian, Palestinian, and Yemeni nationality) entered Europe via the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Just as the US-Mexico border, the wall in Melilla is merely rerouting immigrants’ flows and rising the human costs of migration, as well as perpetuating systemic inequalities between wealthy Spaniards and poorer compatriots of Moroccan descent.
Cyprus To some extent, one may say that Cyprus is in political limbo. Since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded Cyprus to wrest it from Greek control, both countries have been laying claim to the island and its land. As a result, a wall has been built with the aim to physically separate the northern Turkish side from the Greek southern side.
A border crossing between Cyprus and Turkey.
In 2003, after many years of complete and utter segregation, Greek and Turkish administrations allowed people to finally cross the border: a “crack” seems to have opened, but the wall is yet to fall and political division is blatant. In effect, despite Cyprus being part of the EU since 2004, European laws only apply to the southern side of the island, ethnic divide endures between the south and the north of Cyprus.
Serbia and Hungary
Serbia-Hungary Border Post.
In 2015 yet another wall has been built in Europe. This tale of segregation takes place in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán decided to erect a migrant border fence 175km long at the border between Hungary and Serbia. The aim was to pose a halt to the high number of refugees – mostly of Syrian origins – who were undertaking the Balkan route towards Europe, passing through Hungary. The wall epitomizes the feelings of fear, mistrust and anger directed at refugees that have been haunting Europe in the last decade.
The Gaza Strip With a population of more than 1.8 million, the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Since Israeli occupation in 1967, the Gaza Strip has been progressively turning into an open-air prison, completely surrounded by walls and razor wire. Some people were born within this prison’s wall and know no other reality; others, however, do remember life before the wall.
The Israel-Palestine Border in Gaza.
The latter – which extends from northwest of Beit Lahia until southeast of Rafah - poses an oppressive burden on the residents of the Gaza strip, by distorting their routines and strangling their economy. The wall deprived many farmers of their work, as 25% of the most fertile agricultural lands in Gaza are not useable; what is more, according to UNRWA, the joblessness rate stands at an average of 49%. Gaza residents – or shall we say prisoners, to stick to our initial metaphor – hence live in dire conditions, with as much as 80% of them severely depending on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs.
The West Bank
The West Bank is rich in archaeological sites and astonishing landscapes; it exudes history and tradition. Regrettably, the West Bank is also checkpoints and wariness; most of all, the West Bank is a long, controversial and imposing structure: the separation wall.
The Israeli government started building the wall in 2002, claiming its aim was to block Palestinian suicide bombers. One would expect that a wall that is supposed to stop people from entering its territories would be built on Israel’s border; nonetheless, the wall is not being built on the 1967 Green Line and is instead veering into Palestinian territory. As much as 85% of the wall – which is now 708km long – is located inside West Bank. This is in clear violation of international law; as a matter of fact, in 2004 the International Court of Justice ruled the walls illegal and inhumane, and it ordered Israel to tear it down. Nonetheless, the wall still stands and is devastating the lives of many Palestinians. There is a remarkable gap in the narrative set around the wall by Israeli, as opposed to Palestinians.
The Border wall dividing Jerusalem.
The former call is “separation barrier” or “security fence” and claim it is a means to keep out Palestinian attackers; the latter call it the “apartheid wall” and claim that it is illegal land grabbing and a tool used for unlawful annexation. In effect, the wall is redrawing the map and according to some people it is laying the basis for a future 2-state solution.
Some villages have been cut through in half by the border, with some parts remaining West Bank and others being annexed to Israel; it has destroyed a large amount of Palestinian farmland, usurped water supplies, isolated the West Bank population from basic services. This, coupled with the irremediable loss of land, markets, and resources, has rendered communities unable to sustain themselves adequately, thus stripping them of their dignity.
Despite formal condemnation of the separation wall from the International Court of Justice, Israel’s ghettoization project – interesting how history does repeat itself, with victims becoming oppressors and vice versa – continues unperturbed.
The wall even became a touristic attraction, and its graffiti are a must-see for people who visit Bethlehem. Embedded in the hoard of graffiti, there’s a blurred sentence:
“The impact of occupation cannot always be defined quantitatively. Occupation disrupts deep cultural rhythms. people feel uprooted when forced to follow a “normal abnormal” life imposed by the occupier”
This dense, albeit not exhaustive, list of barriers and fences shows that walls are not peaceful partitions that prevent conflicts and “make good neighbors”. They perpetuate hostilities and inequalities by acting – both symbolically and in practical terms – as a constant reminder, a memento , that there is no way to overcome division.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Born and raised in the small island of Sardinia, Chiara holds a Bachelor in International Economics and Management from Bocconi University and an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the LSE. Her research interests and past experience revolve around migration, gender, social well-being, and environmental health. A voracious reader, tenacious half-marathon runner, and with a forma mentis that is pillared on insatiable curiosity and critical thinking, she has an undying love for the art of writing.