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World of Walls

Said Saddiki


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1The functions of international borders, as well as other components and symbols of the nation-state, have changed substantially due to the ever-changing nature of the international environment. At the inception of the nation-state, borders were viewed in military terms. Before the end of the nineteenth century, most states in Europe and North America took a more or less “hands-off” attitude towards the immigration movement. Due to the increasing number of people leaving their home countries, control over cross-border movement became a central concern of the nation-state. According to the Westphalian model of sovereignty, migration control had been the “reserved domain” of the nation-state and a quintessential act of its sovereignty. Consequently, states traditionally enjoy exclusive rights to pass immigration laws that regulate the movement of people across their borders and to decide which to admit, how many and where from.

2The common denominator of new immigration policies taken by the host countries in the last two decades is the linking between immigration policy and border-control management on one hand, and between the immigration policy and security issues on the other hand. Additionally, tightening border control and enhancing judicial measures related to irregular immigration are the major means by which the immigrant-receiving countries try to assert national sovereignty. This may be seen as a response to the decline of countries’ powers to control the flow of money, ideas, information and all kinds of virtual interactions in and out of their territories, which have slipped more and more outside their authority.

3Security concerns remain a main determinant of the current border-control policies which aim at preventing infiltration of members of armed groups, irregular migration, goods smuggling, drug trafficking and other clandestine cross-border activities. In some cases, border fortification reflects the desire to impose unilaterally the de facto border. In addition to these declared goals, the current border fortifications, especially in the Middle East and South Asia, reflect the nature of the existing regional subsystems which are characterized by mutual suspicion and mistrust between different neighboring nations. These anarchical regional subsystems prompt governments to resort to unilateral and preventive solutions.

4The nature of the existing regional subsystems — in North America, North Africa, Middle East or South Asia — is a key factor that determines the current border-control policies led especially by the receiving countries and those most threatened by transnational armed groups. Additionally, with the exception of the U.S.-Mexico border, the legacy of a colonial past and, to a lesser extent, the nation-building process have heavily influenced the border-security policies of post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa.

5One of the paradoxes of “globalization” is that an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world is simultaneously marked by intensified militarization and fortification of national borders. Today, some regions — whether in North America, the Mediterranean or some Asian sub-regions — are being pulled in two different directions: one toward more complementarity and integration (e. g., NAFTA, Union for Mediterranean, ASEAN, SAARC) and another toward the erection of further tangible and intangible border barriers.

6Despite relentless efforts by receiving countries to prevent unauthorized border-crossing by immigrants, drug smugglers and dissidents, these groups have not been deterred. Rather, they have adapted to the strategies designed to impede their movement, developing new ways and means to circumvent such barriers. It is argued that illegal immigration and transnational armed groups cannot be stopped solely by the erection of more walls and fences, but by comprehensive policies based especially on addressing their root causes. In some regions, unauthorized immigration has not declined as a result of tighter border control but because of the economic crisis that has hit some host countries in the last decade. Although a huge amount of money and efforts have been spent on the construction of physical barriers along various international borders or fighting lines in the post-Cold War era, the results achieved have often been less than desired.

7Though military walls may reach some short-term goals by destabilizing the enemy, armed groups can adapt to the new situation by developing missiles that can exceed the height of these barriers, by digging tunnels or by penetrating the enemy lines using forged documents as has been seen in Palestine and Kashmir.

8The construction of physical barriers along many borders all over the world may have revived realist conceptions of national security and sovereignty, but transitional non-state actors, as the main target of these border fortification policies, have seriously questioned whether their impact on international affairs has been neglected. Regardless of all the internal and external challenges faced by a nation-state, borders remain a meaningful symbol of national identity and continue to constitute one of the main determinants of foreign policies. Inasmuch as fortifying national borders in recent years reflects part of these challenges faced by the nation-state, it shows the capabilities of the nation-state to adapt to these new challenges.


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