Borders and Walls: Do Barriers Deter Unauthorized Migration?


[Oct. 5, 2016] In 2015, borders and walls seemed to burst onto the global agenda in the context of migration and halting spontaneous movement. Countries as diverse as Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia announced or began work on new border barriers. This trend has continued apace in 2016, with Bulgaria, Hungary, and Austria expanding their fences, Norway building a fence on its Russian border, the United Kingdom funding a wall in Calais, France, and Pakistan building a fence on its border with Afghanistan.

Border walls also became a central issue in the U.S. presidential race, with Republican Donald Trump emerging from a crowded field of rivals in large part because of his promise to build a “beautiful wall” on the remaining 1,300 unfenced miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, deaths of would-be asylum seekers and migrants in transit have been on the rise worldwide, reaching 5,604 in 2015 alone, according the International Organization for Migration.

The surge in interest in border walls and fences is not simply a media creation but rather represents a very recent historical trend, arising in response to the growth in spontaneous international migration. Although we often imagine that there was a past era in which most borders were secured with physical barriers, in fact the construction of border barriers is a relatively new phenomenon. At the end of World War II there were fewer than five border walls in the world, according to Élisabeth Vallet, a professor of geography at the University of Québec at Montréal. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there were 15. Today, there are nearly 70 (see Figure 1).

This rush to build new walls raises several questions: Why now? Did border walls work in the past? Do they work today? This article examines the history of border fortifications around the world, discusses the evolution of the meaning and purpose of borders, and assesses the extent to which such walls have been effective in achieving their goals.

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