Crossing the line | Monocle

thumbnail text

On 9 November 1989 an East German apparatchik named Günter Schabowski became the unlikely conjuror of what was the greatest surge of human optimism in the post-Second World War period. Getting ahead of himself at a press conference he effectively declared the Berlin Wall open – and with it the Iron Curtain raised – before the decision was supposed to go public. The fortifications that had divided Europe throughout the Cold War were swiftly dismantled and so, in the minds of many Europeans, was received wisdom about the necessity of national borders. The Schengen Agreement, which now enables travellers to proceed from the bottom of Spain to the top of Norway without once being asked for their passports, is in many respects a product of those heady times.

The Iron Curtain was hardly the first fortification of an international border but it was an exception to the general rule of such barriers in that it was built to keep people in rather than out. Nobody wanted to cross it from west to east – apart from, it seemed, most of MI6. Measured against the state of the world today, the joy that greeted its demise also seems an anomaly or perhaps a mistake. Because borders – proper old-school borders with fences and berms and wire and watchtowers and guards with guns – are back in style. When the first East Berliners rushed the gate at Bornholmer Strasse they were breaching one of 16 fortified borders in the world. Today there are at least 65 either in place or under construction – and there are more planned, not least in Europe, which exulted not so long ago in tearing them down.

This is good news, at least for those who build them. The global homeland-security market is expected to be worth $544bn (€480bn) by 2018. The industry warrants its own annual trade fair: the 10th Border Security Expo will be held in San Antonio next April. Companies with knowledge won at home export their expertise: in 2014 the US awarded a huge contract for surveillance systems for the US-Mexico border to Elbit, an Israeli contractor that had previously done the same for the barrier along the West Bank. Companies better known for other things who also provide border security include Saab, Lockheed Martin, Boeing (though it was ingloriously dumped by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011) and Airbus (which worked on Saudi Arabia’s securing of its border with Iraq).

“The risks and difficulties are enormous,” says Ian Todd, vice-president of Restrata, a UAE-based company that has provided security systems for shopping centres and airports in the UK, holy sites in Saudi Arabia, refineries in Iraq and ports in Qatar, as well as the borders of various countries that he declines to name. “That Saudi border, for example, cost a lot more than the original estimate. The problem was the sheer physical isolation of it. It’s expensive to keep UAVs constantly flying so you put up an aerostat – a blimp, basically – with a long-range camera underneath. But in a desert, how do you keep the gas inside it cool?”

Todd suggests that the balloon is an apt metaphor for border security: a squeeze in one place tends to prompt a proportionate bulge elsewhere. The trick is to direct it where you want it to go. But the problems are not all technological.

“In one country we dealt with, the solution proposed was literally to build a brick wall along the length of the border,” says Todd. “It turned out that the guy making the procurement decision was a shareholder in the brickworks. But you can’t just give people the technology and tell them to crack on. You have to change the culture, change the people. The approach of a fence and a border guardpost: those guys tend to be pretty poorly paid so they’re first to take a bribe. We run the airports in Afghanistan. We replaced the Afghan border guards with our own people, we pay them well and we sack them if they breach our code of conduct.”

The key question is whether fortified borders work. Will Tunisia fencing its border with Libya deter terrorists? Will Hungary spooling razor wire along its border with Serbia keep out Middle Eastern and North African migrants?

“They’re mainly symbolic,” says Elisabeth Vallet, professor of geography at the University of Quebec at Montréal and editor of Borders, Fences & Walls. “They don’t work. They just lead migrants to find ways around the walls. That’s why you have issues in Serbia and Macedonia now, because of walls in other places.”

“I think [the borders are] based on a misunderstanding of why people are travelling,” says Daniel Trilling, the editor of New Humanist and a journalist who has reported extensively on migration. “There’s an idea that Europe is the pull factor and that [people will] stop [entering] if we make it harder. But if they’re travelling because they feel they have no choice – which is the case for many, especially from Syria and Eritrea – then given the difficulties of getting out of those places, the difficulty of getting into Europe won’t stop them. It just makes the journey more dangerous. And if the borders get more militarised, so do the smugglers.”

This progression seems likely and not solely because of increasing concerns – wherever these may sit in the spectrum from sensible to hysterical – about issues such as migration and terrorism. In this field as in all others, the market is driven heavily by price and convenience. And in this field as in all others, the decreasing cost of technology has the effect of widening the market.

“That’s what will change in the coming years,” says Todd. “Countries which can’t now afford to monitor borders properly will be able to. The fencing technology won’t change – there will always be a need for physical barriers – but what will change is what’s around those barriers. UAVs were a real preserve of First World nations but now the market is awash and they’re affordable. We deploy a camera made by a US company which costs about $150,000 [€135,000] – a British company just released one a third of the cost.”

Nor should one ever rule out, as a factor, the desire of politicians to be seen to be doing something – and little is more visible than a watchtower.

“It’s the obvious thing to do,” says Elisabeth Vallet. “We mustn’t overestimate people who govern us – they react. Some are trying to think strategically but others don’t think at all – they just build a wall.”

Build ’em high: 10 new, recent and imminent border walls

Bulgaria began extending a metal fence along the border between itself and Turkey this year. The purpose was to deter migrants coming into the country from the Middle East and North Africa. Greece had already done something similar.

Following the suicide bombing that took place in Suruc in July this year, Turkey announced plans to step up its efforts to seal a southern border.

Hungary is fed up with being perceived as an entry point to the EU for migrants who are crossing the Balkans from the east. As a result it has begun fencing this border.

Georgia-South Ossetia:
Russia first started stringing barbed wire across Georgian territory in 2013 in order to delineate the puppet protectorate of South Ossetia.

Saudi Arabia-Iraq/Yemen:
Saudi Arabia has fenced off the whole of its northern border with Iraq, with the aim of keeping out smugglers as well as better-armed undesirables. Riyadh is also constructing its southern border because it hopes to keep the war in Yemen in Yemen.

One of the ways in which Pakistan is trying to make the Durand Line slightly less porous is by creating a ditch that measures about 2,400km in length.

Kenya, wearied of the predations of Jihadi groups who are operating from inside the territories of its unruly northern neighbour, announced plans to build a wall in 2015.

Botswana began building a 500km fence in 2003 in order to keep foot-and-mouth disease out of the country. Zimbabweans still think it’s to keep out Zimbabweans.

When complete this 4,000km fence will be one of the world’s longest border fortifications. It’s already one of the most dangerous: more than 1,000 people have died alongside it in the last decade.

A border wall was built here as a response to June’s massacre of beach-goers at Sousse. It is intended to keep Isis out and encourage tourists to come back.

Share on:







sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • The Continental Shift