‘Us’, ‘Them’, and the Walls of Order

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago this November, many believed that Europe’s final wall had come down. From then on, Europe would unite and borders would slowly disappear. Yet, the idea of Europe as a borderless continent is an illusion as Lisanne Oldekamp investigates for Pandeia: not to mention the rest of the world. 

Francis Fukuyama was perhaps the most optimistic: he announced the ‘end of history’ would shortly follow the end of the Cold War. He expected that there would never again be wars and that people would collectively move towards democracy and capitalism. In the 1990s, this optimism was quickly shattered. And although interstate wars, nowadays referred to as the ‘classic’ type of war, occur far less than during the Cold War, borders have by no means disappeared.

In fact, since 2001, walls have risen all across the world to form an obstacle between one nation and the other. The Dutch online medium De Correspondent devoted an extensive article on the topic, claiming that three quarters of the world’s border walls have been built during the last thirteen years.

Wall against Terror

3941892391_95f5ae330c_oMostly, the builders of these walls use one of two arguments: they are intended either to disable terrorists from illegally entering the country or to stop illegal non-terrorist immigrants. Both arguments are justified by the use or creation of a fear, claiming that those on the other side of the walls pose a threat. Whether they threaten national security or the economic opportunities of citizens within the walls, it is crucial to keep them out – and what better way than to build a wall?

It is commonly known that the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks were not from Mexico. Yet, as the Secure Fence Act passed US Congress, the wall on the border with Mexico was considered part of the defense strategy in the War on Terror. This War was used to counter moral objections in the debates on the building of other walls as well. In Israel, the final objections were evaporated by the argument that terroristic attacks would stop if access to Israel was made impossible. India used a similar sentiment while building a wall on its border with Bangladesh.

In Europe, the argument of terrorism is overshadowed by that of massive immigration. The idea of a continent flooded by gold diggers from Africa or Eastern Europe is very persistent in European discourse. The Italian island of Lampedusa has regularly reached the headlines as an example of these arguments. But it is not just the physical border countries of Europe that fear excessive immigration. Although The Netherlands are bordered only by fellow Western European countries, there has been a heated debate on the immigration of Eastern Europeans. After Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU on January 1st, citizens from these countries were feared to massively (ab)use the Dutch social benefits system. A majority of the Dutch therefore rooted for closing their country’s borders for these immigrants, causing for opposition leader Geert Wilders to take a traffic sign to the Romanian embassy in The Hague, stating that the ambassador’s fellow countrymen were not welcome in The Netherlands. 8894994986_c8e07061a4_b

Symbolic politics

But are these border walls actually doing what they are intended for? Have terrorist attacks and illegal immigration actually decreased because of the walls? Many scientists argue that the walls are only partially effective, at best. Yes – in urban areas in the south of the USA illegal immigration has decreased. But on other parts of the border, where there is no wall (yet), immigration has only increased.

One clear effect of the border walls is that illegal immigration has undergone some significant changes. Since easier ways to cross borders have disappeared, immigrants cross borders more often in groups. This has lured the attention of human traffickers, who often ask a lot of money to transport groups of people to the other side of the border. There is of course no guarantee for success, and the high death toll of trafficking shows the dangers of these alternative ways of immigration.

Furthermore, since border crossing has become increasingly difficult, numbers indicate that more immigrants stay in the United States permanently – where before the closing of the border, they crossed back and forth. These numbers indicate that border crossing is not a one-way stream: foreign laborers often travel back and forth between the home country and the country they work in.

As argued by associate professor of Geopolitics and Political Geography Henk van Houtum, the fear of The Netherlands being flooded by economic immigrants is greatly overestimated. In an interview on Dutch radio in 2012, he argued that this fear was a ‘classic scapegoat theory’:

“Eastern-Europeans already have access to certain countries in Europe. The numbers show that those countries experience nothing even close to a flood of immigrants: only three per cent of the Romanian and Bulgarian labor force works in Italy and Spain.”

But then at least the walls make a country a better place, right? Wrong. Terrorism is becoming more and more home-grown (Boston marathon; Oslo and Utoya; London subway). The discourse of fear for national security is countered by creating a sense of safety that is mostly illusionary, as argued by Reece Jones. In a phone interview with the previously mentioned Dutch online medium De Correspondent, he states that “there is no proof whatsoever that border walls have a more than marginal effect on terrorism”.

7439932002_72b534d64f_bImagined security

But why, then, have governments across the world grown so fond of wall-building in the past decade and a half? Experts argue that civilians’ sense of security is threatened by globalization. The increasing multiculturalism of (Western) societies has caused for an increasing need to underline a sense of belonging, of nationalism even. And inhabitants of these societies turn to their governments for protection.

But no government is able to eliminate all external threats (whether real or imagined). Therefore, they turn to methods that create an illusion of safety. In the case of the Indian wall on its border with Bangladesh, Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati argues that the measure was as ineffective as it was genius. Since doing nothing would have been political suicide, and a military intervention would have created a massacre, “building a fence was the least harmful way of doing nothing.”

Aside from the many negative side-effects border walls have for those on the other side of the wall, this is perhaps their only function. It creates an imaginary sense of security for the people on the ‘right’ side of the walls. So sleep tight, tonight: Big Brother is walling you.

Photograph: Flickr, Creative Commons by Rakastajatar, Sweet Marjoram, Tal King Photographer, Scott Cawley

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