Tag Archives: India

Controversial Nobel Peace prizes were still a human rights victory

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THE NOBEL PEACE Prize Committee once again recognised the dedication of individuals in standing up for peace and human rights, after two years of celebrating institutions. This year’s focus was on children’s rights. Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai were jointly awarded the Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

Kailash Satyarthi has been leading the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Children Movement) in India since 1980. Together with a group of 80,000 volunteers, he liberated more than 78,000 children from labour exploitation, as he denounced than many more – tens of millions –  are still used in some form of labour or almost slavery.

Malala Yousafzai is a campaigner for girls’ education. At 11 years of age, she was contributing to the BBC Urdu language service, describing life in her home region of Swat, Pakistan, which was under the Taliban’s control. She documented the Taliban’s crackdown on music, culture and education for girls. She became known worldwide in 2012, when the Taliban attempted to murder her by shooting her in the head. She has since received medical care in the UK, where she presently resides with her family after having received asylum. At 17, she is the youngest ever Nobel laureate, and became the fourteenth woman to win the Peace Prize since 1901.

While this year’s victory is not as extravagant as Al Gore’s in 2007 or Barack Obama’s in 2009, not everyone agreed with the Nobel Committee decisions. Supporters of other nominees, notably Edward Snowden, were disappointed. Others are not fully convinced by Malala’s victory because it is not about “peace” or because she is seen as an opportunity for the West to reiterate the narrative of the evil savages while remaining silent about the damaged caused by their wars and drone strikes.

Despite Western media focusing on some of the things Malala says, while understating her Muslim and Socialist convictions, Malala remains a remarkable, deserving Peace Prize winner. Whatever the West’s depiction, she does and says what she believes is right – not what she thinks will please people’s ears. When she opposed the Taliban’s regime, it was her own initiative: there was no “West” to protect her. She proved herself to be an inspirational young woman, taking charge of her own destiny and standing up to those who tried to silenced her. Her honesty, bravery and compassion, in spite of what she’s suffered, is worthy of respect and recognition.

Most importantly, this year’s Peace Prize has to be understood as a union of both Malala and Mr. Satyarthi. Focusing on Malala only not only diminishes the impressive work that Mr. Satyarthi has carried out, but also is missing the point of the award. The Committee specifically selected a man and a woman, a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, a younger and an older person. This was to send the powerful message: that anyone can do something to improve people’s lives, and promote peace and development.  The education of children is a fundamental step in building peace in and across nations: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” read the motivation.

Is this a Western narrative? Is it too political? The Nobel is a Western institution, it will most certainly look at the world from a Western perspective, especially when choosing prizes for their less scientific categories like Literature and Peace. These prizes are very often politically motivated, and mostly tend to “pander to their audience and honour worldwide harmony” as the satirical website The Onion mockingly described it. This year, the political motivation was to bring closer two activists involved in similar struggles in two neighbouring countries facing tensions and a not-so-frozen border conflict. It was a message of unity in face of divisions.

Many more years will have to go by before an institution like the Nobel Committee will acknowledge the noble efforts of those who have tried to make the US accountable for their actions. That time will come, one day. For now, let us celebrate and be inspired by two people who also fight against powerful forces exploiting the innocents. The recognition of those who are standing up to oppressors and improving the lives of others is always a cause for celebration.

 

Written by Sofia Lotto Persio

Image: screenshot from The Nobel Prize’s Twitter account

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Delhi Inc.

Often, actions speak louder than words. Sometimes, so do pictures.

Delhi:  a photo essay by Myrto Voyatzis

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Arriving at Delhi Airport late at night should be rather convenient since one can avoid most of the desperate shouting and the sweaty, unsynchronized crowds. Or at least that’s what I thought before I arrived. After the traditional control points, I quickly retrieved my luggage, changed some money and, half asleep, headed for the exit. But my glasses were far too deep in my handbag, and the sliding doors were moving too quickly for me to be able to distinguish the nervous shapes patiently waiting behind it. Gradually the noises came to match hundreds of faces surrounding the gates holding signs, one larger than the other, and shouting ‘welcome’ amongst hasty offers of hotel rooms and cab fares to the city centre. 1200 rupees for a ride quickly became 600, and in a matter of minutes I was on my way to Connaught Place, Delhi’s main economic hub.

Once I reached Connaught Place, the crowd of people in front of the airport seemed ridiculously small in comparison. I have to admit that choosing one of Delhi’s most touristic neighborhoods was not the smartest thing to do. Imagine tons of twisted streets and improvised passages invaded by persistent merchants, intense smells and, most unforgettably, car horns. I assure you that in a city with one of the highest road densities on earth, car horns can most certainly drive you mad.

Between spicy colors and investigative looks, my first day in Delhi abruptly awakened my senses, and not always in a good way. Finding yourself in front of such a disproportionate presence of waste and overflowing trashcans in one city definitely makes you appreciate the existence of garbage collectors. Although, the cows and monkeys in Delhi did seem to do a pretty good job themselves.

Walking in the heat for half an hour with the sole purpose of finding a garbage bin is something I remember doing quite often, only to discover one that has been overflowing for over a week. I later found out that in Delhi there is 9.200 tons of garbage being produced every day, and just 15% of the city has a door-to-door garbage pickup system. People are also bitterly opposed to new landfills coming up in their neighborhoods, as they have seen authorities let the past ones turn to massive, polluting heaps. As a result, the soil becomes highly toxic while methane poisons the air. Although it is a situation I was expecting to encounter when arriving in Delhi – after all, it is considered the most polluted city in the world – I was still very much surprised by how thoughtlessly people seemed to throw their trash outside. Once, I even tried to argue about it when a shopkeeper shoved my empty water bottle in a bush, only to receive an apologetic smile as an answer. After insisting for about two or three minutes I gave up. After all, how can words really change such deeply carved mentalities? And where do mentalities meet ineffective policies?

Faithful to its mission to transform Delhi into a capital of the “new world”, the government has initiated several programs to improve its environmental quality, such as turning trash into electric resources or introducing biomining operations. However, the government has often been accused of using pollution as an excuse to implement violent privatizations and unconstitutional land takeovers. One of its most criticized measures is the large-scale demolitions of jhuggis (slum houses) and the evictions of thousands of families every year. Considered encroachers, the 32 million slum residents have been accused of “polluting” the Yamuna River through the discharge of untreated sewage. Yet, recently published studies reveal that only a tiny fraction of the 3,600 million liters wastewater generated in Delhi each day derives from those living on Yamuna’s banks. It is the 19 sewage drains that come from the posh residential areas and industries that actually pollute the river. According to the studies, one slum dweller often receives only 16 liters per day in comparison to 450 liters received by one person living in posh areas. The poor don’t pollute to the degree claimed simply because they don’t have the resources to do so. “The government is presenting incorrect facts in the courts and the poor don’t have the money to approach them and present their side of the story. The fees of the lawyers and judges run in lakhs. How can we pay this?” a slum dweller expressed to reporters in 2011 after his house had been demolished without any notice or court orders of eviction. “My husband died on the 20th, the day of the eviction. In the morning he asked me to make him a cup of tea. When I gave him the tea, he said we should get the packing done because the bulldozers and police were on the way. As we were putting our things together, he said he wanted some water. I got it, and in just that moment he passed away. The police put his body on the road and ordered for our home to be demolished,” another woman told reporters.

These evictions have been presented as a “voluntary relocation”, with people shifting to plots they have elsewhere. But in reality, only a small percent of the residents receive alternative plots. On the other hand, the ‘lucky’ ones who get to move to relocation sites are squeezed in spaces of 16 square meters and often left with no electricity, water or toilets. What’s more, the sites are so far away from their earlier workplaces that they cannot afford the bus fare and are thus forced to quit their jobs. Most of the residents work as cycle-rickshaw pullers, waste-pickers, hawkers, sweepers, domestic workers, drivers or construction workers. Resistance to the evictions is usually punished with threats, beatings or even the use of tear gas.

The absence of planned housing for the city’s poor should not be regarded as coincidental. Do the poor pollute so much that it’s worth demolishing their houses and giving them false promises? The fact that inaccurate perspectives of pollution have class consequences has already been proved several times. Thousands of small industrial units have been shut down on the grounds of pollution since the late 1980s, when India was shoved into neoliberalism. Neoliberalism came with a balance of payment crisis that India underwent in 1990-1991. The country managed to prevent payment default by borrowing from the IMF, the World Bank and bilateral donors. However, the loans came with conditions: India had to implement structural adjustments and move away from a state-led development, under the rhetoric of prescription and post-disaster therapy (“shock doctrine”, as Naomi Klein calls it). Failure to comply meant that no loans would be provided in the future.

Adhering to Britain and US backed policies took more than higher gas prices. It meant the decline of capital formation in the public sector, the intervention of big business houses in the decision-making process, and the re-creation of space to facilitate privatized profiteering. But neoliberal transformation is not simply a top-down process. It has the support of people interested in non-agricultural sectors and the Indian elite, who are in a position to usurp the advantages out of international technological collaborations, profits and expansion of employment opportunities in the corporate sector. Therefore, even if the public sector continues to provide jobs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, – groups of disadvantaged people – jobs in the private sector, especially the corporate sector, are monopolized by the upper caste population.

The failure of “liberalization” to establish an egalitarian social order is no secret. The violent industrialization and the tremendous shifts in economic power between both urban and rural regions have caused tens of thousands of farm suicides in rural populations since the mid ‘90s. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 199,132 farmers have killed themselves since 1997, a figure that remains disputed with some saying that the true number is much higher. As BBC reports, since 2006 the government spends less than 0.2% of GDP on agriculture, leading to huge migratory waves towards Delhi. This is why the number of jhuggi dwellers has grown so sharply. Sandwiched between blue-glass fronted offices and spanking new malls, jhuggis are accused of disfiguring the city, spreading crime and spreading diseases. Instead of improving their abysmal living conditions, they are violently wiped out from the city’s urban planning, labeled unfit to qualify for the vision of “shining metropolises”.

While roaming around Delhi on my fourth day, I found myself in front of one such slum. I was surprised to see a group of tourists following some improvised passages and carefully listening to the tour guide in front. When I approached them and asked what they were doing there, they told me that it was an organized tour priced at 200 rupees a ticket. “It is meant to sensitise and create awareness,” the tour guide told me. “I have been through this myself so I know what happens here.” I didn’t know what to say. I watched them walk away as their cameras bumped on their chests, ready to be used as soon as the catchy image of a slum kid showed up.

 

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moving on

horn please

may I

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‘Slums for Tourists’ – Modern class inequality in India

The Advocacy Project

ARRIVING AT DEHLI airport late at night should be rather convenient, since you can avoid most of the desperate shouting and the sweaty unsynchronised crowds. At least that’s what I thought. After the usual control points I quickly retrieved my luggage, changed some money and – half asleep – headed to the exit. But my glasses were far too deep in my handbag and the sliding doors were moving too quickly for me to be able to distinguish the nervous shapes patiently waiting behind it on time. Gradually the noises came to match hundreds of faces surrounding the gates holding signs, one larger than the other, shouting ‘welcome’ and hasty offers for hotel rooms and cab fares to the city centre. 1200 rupees for a ride quickly became 600 and in a few minutes I was on my way to Connaught Place, the city’s main economic hub.

Once there, the crowd of people in front of the airport seemed ridiculously small. I have to admit that choosing one of Delhi’s most popular tourist neighbourhoods was not the smartest thing to do. Just imagine a bunch of twisted streets and improvised passages invaded by persistent merchants, intense smells and – most unforgettably – car horns; I assure you that in a city with one of the highest road densities on earth, car horns can most certainly drive you mad. Between spicy colours and investigative looks, my first day in Delhi abruptly awakened my senses.

But not always in a good way. Finding yourself in front of such a disproportionate presence of waste definitely makes you appreciate the existence of garbage collectors. Here, it seems mostly the cows and monkeys who take care of trash. Walking in the heat for half an hour with the sole purpose of finding a garbage bin is something I remember doing quite often, only to discover upon finding one that it had been overflowing for a week.

I later found out that in Delhi alone there are 9,200 tonnes of garbage being produced every day while just 15 per cent of the city has a door to door trash pick-up system. People are also bitterly opposed to new landfills coming up in their neighbourhood as they have seen that the authorities have turned the past ones into massive, polluting heaps resulting in highly contaminated soil and air. Although it’s a situation I was expecting to encounter when arriving in Delhi – it is considered the most polluted city in the world – I couldn’t help being very surprised by how carelessly people seemed to throw their trash on the streets. Once I even tried to argue about it when a shopkeeper shoved my empty water bottle in a bush. His only response was an apologetic smile. After insisting for about two or three minutes I gave up. After all, how can words really change such deeply carved mentalities? And what can mentality change in the first place, if the policies required aren’t there?

Blaming the poor
Committed to its mission to transform Delhi into a modern global capital, the government has initiated several programs to

By Myrto Vogtiazi

By Myrto Vogtiazi

improve its environmental quality. Despite attempts to turn trash into electricity and to introduce biomining, the government has often been accused of using pollution as an excuse to implement violent privatisations and unconstitutional land grabs. One of its most criticised measures are the large-scale demolitions of jhuggis (slum houses) and the eviction of thousands of families every year. Considered as encroachers, the 32 million slum residents have been accused of “polluting” the Yamuna river through the discharge of untreated sewage.
Yet, recently published studies reveal that only a tiny fraction of the 3,600 million litres waste-water generated in Delhi each day derives from those living on Yamuna’s banks. It is the 19 sewage drains that come from the posh residential areas and industries that actually pollute the river. According to the studies, one slum dweller often receives only 16 litres per day in comparison with 450 litres received per person in wealthier areas. The poor don’t pollute to the degree claimed, simply because they don’t have the resources to do so.
“The government is presenting incorrect facts in the courts and the poor don’t have the money to approach them and present their side of the story. The fees of the lawyers and judges run in lakhs. How can we pay this?”, a slum dweller told reporters in 2011, after his house had been demolished without any notice or court orders for eviction. “My husband died on the 20th, the day of the eviction. In the morning he asked me to make him a cup of tea. When I gave him the tea, he said we should get the packing done because the bulldozers and police were on the way. As we were putting on things together he said he wanted some water. I got it and in just that moment he passed away. The police put his body on the road and ordered for our home to be demolished”, another woman told the reporters.

These evictions have been presented as a “voluntary relocation”, with people shifting to plots they got elsewhere. But in reality only a small percentage of the residents receive alternative plots. The ‘lucky’ ones who get to move to relocation sites are squeezed in spaces of 16 square metres and often left without electricity, water or toilets. What’s more, the sites are so far away from people’s workplaces – mostly as rickshaw pullers, waste-pickers, hawkers, sweepers, domestic workers, drivers or construction workers – that they can’t afford the bus fare and are forced to quit. Resistance to the evictions are usually punished with beatings or even the use of tear gas.

The absence of planned housing for the city’s poor should not be regarded as coincidental. The fact that inaccurate perspectives of pollution have class consequences has already been proven several times. Thousands of small industrial units have been shut down on the grounds of pollution since the late 1980s, when India was shoved into neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberalism came with a balance of payment crisis that India underwent in 1990-1991. The country managed to prevent payment default by borrowing from the IMF, the World Bank and bilateral donors. However, the loans came with conditions: India had to implement structural adjustments and move away from a state-led development, under the rhetoric of prescription and post-disaster therapy – “shock doctrine” as Naomi Klein calls it. Failure to comply meant that no loans would be provided in the future.

Adhering to Britain and US backed policies took more than higher gas prices. It meant the decline of capital formation in the public sector, the intervention of big business houses in the decision-making process and the re-creation of space to facilitate privatised profiteering. But neo-liberal transformation is not simply a top-down process. It has the support of people interested in non-agricultural sectors and the Indian elite, who are in a position to usurp the advantages out of international technological collaborations, profits and expansion of employment opportunities in the corporate sector. Therefore, even if the public sector continues to provide jobs to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, disadvantaged people recognised by the government and jobs in the private sector – especially the corporate sector – are monopolised by the upper caste population.

Slums for tourists
The failure of “liberalisation” to establish an egalitarian social order is no secret. The violent industrialisation and the tremendous shifts in economic power between regions, urban/rural, has caused tens of thousands of farm suicides in rural population since the mid ‘90s. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 199,132 farmers have killed themselves since 1997, a figure that remains disputed; some say that the real number is much higher. As the BBC reports, since 2006 the government spends less than 0.2 per cent of GDP on agriculture leading to huge migratory waves towards Delhi, which is why the number of jhuggi dwellers has grown so sharply. Sandwiched between blue-glass fronted offices and spanking new malls, jhuggis are accused of disfiguring the city as well as spreading crime and disease. Instead of improving their abysmal living conditions, they are violently wiped from the city’s urban planning, unfit to qualify for the vision of “shining metropolises”.

While roaming around Delhi on my fourth day, I found myself in front of one such slum. I was surprised to see a group of tourists following some improvised passages and carefully listening to the tour guide in front. When I approached them and asked what they were doing there, they told me that it was an organised tour priced at 200 rupees a ticket. “It is meant to sensitise and create awareness”, the tour guide told me. “I have been through this myself so I know what happens here”. I didn’t know what to say. I watched them walk away as their cameras bumped on their chests, ready to be used as soon as the catchy image of a slum kid would show up.

By Myrto Vogiatzi

Picture credit: The Advocacy Project

A tale of two worlds: Inequality in the 21st century

A month ago, Oxfam released a report on the increasing gap between the super rich and poor. Rebecca Thorning Wine takes a look at the report and the power structures that enable the gap to widen as well as the possible mentality behind billionaires.

On Monday January 20, 2014, Oxfam released a report on the growing global threat of economic inequality. Some of its major findings were that 85 of the wealthiest individuals now own the same as the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world, half the world’s wealth is acquired by one percent of the population, and that seven out of ten people reside in countries where economic disparity has widened over the past 30 years. The report was released just in time for the World Economic Forum in Davos, and asked that those empowered enable change, pledge to enforce a ‘living wage’ within companies that they control, and support the taxation of wealth – among a long list of other recommendations.

The following is a summary of how the Oxfam report contextualised the state of economic disparity in the US, Europe, India, Pakistan, and Africa.

Power structures that rig the game in the US

Oxfam took a look at how money in politics effectively skews representation and increases inequality in the US. Since the 1970s corporations have successfully weakened regulations of money in politics through lobbying, which as a result have helped to create policies with tax loopholes that favour these same corporations. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Dodd-Frank bill that attempted to increase regulation in order to prevent a second crash. However, lobbyists for the financial district have spent over a billion dollars in an attempt to delay the implementation of the bill.

Europe and inequality

As a result of regressive taxes and excessive spending cuts in education, healthcare, social security and diminishing labour rights, the combination of these actions has led to economic inequality in Europe. Recently the IMF has admitted that these measures have hindered growth and recovery, and have been detrimental to the hope for growth and equality.

The roots of corruption and power in India

India is a case where half of the country’s dozen billionaires have acquired their wealth in ‘rent-thick’ sectors. These sectors include real estate, telecommunications, construction and mining, “where profits are dependent on access to scarce resources, made available exclusively through government permissions and therefore susceptible to corruption by powerful actors – as opposed to creation of wealth”

Tax loopholes in Pakistan

Pakistan’s parliament is made up of the country’s richest elites who use their position to advance their own interests through the creation of tax loopholes and non-disclosure laws. For example, 10 million people qualify to pay taxes yet only 2.5 million are registered to do so. Furthermore, the average income of a parliament member is $900,000, with the richest member earning $37 billion, yet only 61% of lawmakers paid income tax in 2010. The Oxfam report draws the conclusion that, without a real tax base, the government cannot adequately provide its citizens with any form of basic services like education, healthcare and a functional infrastructure – thus economic disparity is only ever reinforced.

Continuing inequality in Africa

Credit: Liane Greeff

As new natural resources are being discovered in Africa, exports of oil, natural gas, metals, and minerals are behind booming growth in Tanzania, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Namibia. Yet poverty and inequality remains intact in these countries. Oxfam cites a study that in fact proves a correlation between the level of resources in African countries, and the level of inequality determined by the GINI coefficient. The report therefore concludes that due to weak regulations, corporations can ally themselves with political actors which results in a decrease in the emphasis on poverty reduction.

Is it just human nature?

85 billionaires are not solely responsible for these policies put in place, but it begs the question: how can they actively try and grow their unequivocal wealth and power, in the face of such inequality. Paul Piff, who studies the psychology of wealth at University of California, Berkeley, created a study of the game Monopoly, and what happens when the game is engineered so that one player wins, in attempt to answer this question.

They had 100 pairs of strangers come in and flip a coin where the winner received extra privileges throughout the game (like getting extra money for passing ‘Go’ and being able to always roll twice in a row). Then, through hidden cameras they watched the players’ behaviour, and as the game unfolded dramatic differences occurred. The rich players showed signs of dominance by smacking their pieces as they moved across the board, and became more boisterous and rude towards the losing player. At the end of the game, when questioned about why they won, the rich players talked about how they had bought different properties, but did not mention that the flip of the coin had allowed them to receive far more opportunities to win.

After Piff and his colleagues had carried out dozens of studies across the country, and surveyed thousands of people, they found that as an individual’s wealth increases so does their feeling of entitlement, and that their ability to empathise decreases. They are then able to moralise greed to be good as well as the preservation of self-interest.

Another study done by three psychological researchers, Michael W. Kraus, Stéphane Côté and Dacher Keltner in 2010, looked at how social class might be an indication to what degree an individual can empathize with others. There were three parts to the experiment, the first looked at how participants processed emotions based on pictures. What they found was the more upper class the participant; the less able they were in correctly identifying emotions. The second experiment found that upper class participants were less able to identify emotions in the context of a job interview. The last experiment found that lower socioeconomic status participants were more equipped to identify 36 sets of emoting eyes. The researchers thus concluded that rich people suffer from empathy deficits, ill-equipped to pick up on subtle emotional cues.

In Paul Piff’s Ted Talk about his study, he quotes Bill Gates: “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries – but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity”. In line with this, Oxfam calls for a redistribution of power and stronger social schemes to increase upward mobility for the poor. Piff further states that reminding the rich of the effects of poverty can increase their likeliness to help the poor. With income inequality functioning as a global threat, this needs to be a daily reminder.

‘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