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Border walls are brutal, obscenely costly, fatal and even ineffective - Dr Elisabeth Vallet

Elisabeth Vallet noted that at the end of the Cold War there were just 15 walls delimiting national borders; today, with 70 of them in existence around the world, the border wall has become the new standard for international relations.

With the proliferation of walls and their normalisation in the rhetoric of  President Donald Trump, democracies have adopted the tactic as though it were a classic policy tool in foreign relations and defence. And yet these rampant fortifications come at a hefty price, as much for the governments and internat­ional relations as for the local economies and populations. For those most vulnerable, for those pushed out by the walls, the cost is exorbitant.

As symptoms of a rift in the world order, as manifestations of the failings of international cooperation, these barriers also come at a cost to those they shut out — the untouchables. The reality is that, despite being entrenched in international law, their freedom of movement is not as valuable as others’, each passport carrying its own set of rights.

It seems like every month brings news of another border wall going up. Europe’s Baltic States, worried about invasive neighbours, are raising a fence along their eastern frontier. Meanwhile, in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping is calling for the building of an iron wall around the Xinjiang region. In Latin America, Ecuador appears to have begun erecting concrete panels along the Peruvian state line. In Africa, a barrier between Somalia and Kenya, made of barbed wire, concrete and posts, is nearing completion.

Building the Berlin Wall, 1961

This is a far cry from the illusion generated by the fall of the Berlin Wall — and by the utopian dream of a world without borders that emerged in the 1990s.

First, Vallet said, consider the financial cost of border walls. Each one is a boon to the security and construction industries. The experience in the USA provides many examples of the cost of a massive border infrastructure. This typically involves not just a physical wall with stone foundations, posts, and even concrete panels, but also razor wire, cameras, heat sensors, movement detectors, drones and patrol personnel, dogs or robots.

In fact, in 2009, the US Government Accountability Office placed the cost for building just a fence along California’s border up to $6 million each k. In harsher terrain jurisdictionally and geologically, such as the Texas state line, the building cost could be as much as $21 million a kilometre. Maintaining it for 20 years will be a massive cost c$8.5 billion; it is therefore a massive public infrastructure, akin to a giant highway, that eats away at a country’s public finances and, in turn, at overall disposable income. So this financial burden is also an economic weight that drags down the country’s aggregate income as well as the local economy.

In Berlin, there was a masonry wall only in the CBD.
The remainder of Western Berlin was surrounded by a triple line of barbed wire fences with razor sharp concertina wire.

There is also a human cost. There is, in fact, a proven correlation between the fortification of borders and the number of people who die trying to cross them. In the USA, 6,000 deaths in the desert along the border have been recorded in the last 16 years. Since the tightening of European policies, the Mediterranean has become a dead sea, where the number of deaths continues to climb despite a decline in the total number of crossing attempts. In fact, to get across a fortified and tightly controlled border, the available routes are often far more treacherous, pose greater threats and require resorting to smugglers, who are sometimes linked to organised crime groups like the Mafia.

Violence is amp­lified when the border is militarised. First and foremost, because such militarisation legitimises the perception of the border zone as a theatre of operations, a war zone, where paramilitary groups feel justified to act, as in their deployments along the Hungarian border. Secondly, by adding military personnel or army veterans to border patrol forces (they account for a third of such teams in the USA), the tactics come to match those used in war zones, bringing with them patent impunity and violence. Lastly, by forcing clandestine border crossing to become even more hidden, by pushing migrants deeper underground, these measures reinforce the power of organised crime groups, and increase the violent extortion or coercion of vulnerable migrants. From the borders of Southeast Asia to the Sahel Region, and from Central America to the USA or from Turkey to Greece, it is the most vulnerable migrants who suffer the repercussions of border walls.

Constructing walls also comes at a political price. Since putting up a wall is a one-sided act — the farthest thing from the bilateral reasoning behind drawing state lines — it induces a separation from the neighbouring state, rather than fostering co-operation with it. Israel’s West Bank separation barrier is a major source of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. The Inter­national Court of Justice ruled its construction illegal in 2004, but did that court declare any other wall illegal?

Divided parents and children had to wave across the Berlin Wall for years

The rift created by a wall sends shock waves through other facets of the relationship between the nations. In the case of Trump’s wall, the cost of the split with Mexico is high, given this trade partner’s importance to the US economy as well as to the other bordering states. For refugees, the neighbouring states often serve as filters.

As border walls erode the potential for international cooperation and community, the world’s problems keep growing: food insecurity, ethnic conflicts, environmental crises, climate change, massive displacements of people. Many different problems bring nations to build walls, but they are pointless facades.

And a wall, by itself, is ineffective: it’s easy to scale it, place ramps over the barrier to get a car across, fly drugs over it with drones, or use hydraulic fracturing to dig out narrow tunnels. No wall has ever succeeded in permanently elimin­at­ing contra­band. Ramps, catapults, drones, tunnels, submarines, mules or corrupt border guards can always undermine its eff­ectiveness; or the drug traffic merely shifts elsewhere.

Thanks to Dr Elisabeth Vallet, Centre for Geopolitical Studies, Université du Québec à Montréal.


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