16 February 2019

Border walls are brutal, obscenely costly, fatal and even ineffective - Dr Elisabeth Vallet

Elisabeth Vallet noted that at the end of the Cold War there were just 15 walls delimiting national borders; today, with 70 of them in existence around the world, the border wall has become the new standard for international relations.

With the proliferation of walls and their normalisation in the rhetoric of  President Donald Trump, democracies have adopted the tactic as though it were a classic policy tool in foreign relations and defence. And yet these rampant fortifications come at a hefty price, as much for the governments and internat­ional relations as for the local economies and populations. For those most vulnerable, for those pushed out by the walls, the cost is exorbitant.

As symptoms of a rift in the world order, as manifestations of the failings of international cooperation, these barriers also come at a cost to those they shut out — the untouchables. The reality is that, despite being entrenched in international law, their freedom of movement is not as valuable as others’, each passport carrying its own set of rights.

It seems like every month brings news of another border wall going up. Europe’s Baltic States, worried about invasive neighbours, are raising a fence along their eastern frontier. Meanwhile, in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping is calling for the building of an iron wall around the Xinjiang region. In Latin America, Ecuador appears to have begun erecting concrete panels along the Peruvian state line. In Africa, a barrier between Somalia and Kenya, made of barbed wire, concrete and posts, is nearing completion.

Building the Berlin Wall, 1961

This is a far cry from the illusion generated by the fall of the Berlin Wall — and by the utopian dream of a world without borders that emerged in the 1990s.

First, Vallet said, consider the financial cost of border walls. Each one is a boon to the security and construction industries. The experience in the USA provides many examples of the cost of a massive border infrastructure. This typically involves not just a physical wall with stone foundations, posts, and even concrete panels, but also razor wire, cameras, heat sensors, movement detectors, drones and patrol personnel, dogs or robots.

In fact, in 2009, the US Government Accountability Office placed the cost for building just a fence along California’s border up to $6 million each k. In harsher terrain jurisdictionally and geologically, such as the Texas state line, the building cost could be as much as $21 million a kilometre. Maintaining it for 20 years will be a massive cost c$8.5 billion; it is therefore a massive public infrastructure, akin to a giant highway, that eats away at a country’s public finances and, in turn, at overall disposable income. So this financial burden is also an economic weight that drags down the country’s aggregate income as well as the local economy.

In Berlin, there was a masonry wall only in the CBD.
The remainder of Western Berlin was surrounded by a triple line of barbed wire fences with razor sharp concertina wire.

There is also a human cost. There is, in fact, a proven correlation between the fortification of borders and the number of people who die trying to cross them. In the USA, 6,000 deaths in the desert along the border have been recorded in the last 16 years. Since the tightening of European policies, the Mediterranean has become a dead sea, where the number of deaths continues to climb despite a decline in the total number of crossing attempts. In fact, to get across a fortified and tightly controlled border, the available routes are often far more treacherous, pose greater threats and require resorting to smugglers, who are sometimes linked to organised crime groups like the Mafia.

Violence is amp­lified when the border is militarised. First and foremost, because such militarisation legitimises the perception of the border zone as a theatre of operations, a war zone, where paramilitary groups feel justified to act, as in their deployments along the Hungarian border. Secondly, by adding military personnel or army veterans to border patrol forces (they account for a third of such teams in the USA), the tactics come to match those used in war zones, bringing with them patent impunity and violence. Lastly, by forcing clandestine border crossing to become even more hidden, by pushing migrants deeper underground, these measures reinforce the power of organised crime groups, and increase the violent extortion or coercion of vulnerable migrants. From the borders of Southeast Asia to the Sahel Region, and from Central America to the USA or from Turkey to Greece, it is the most vulnerable migrants who suffer the repercussions of border walls.

Constructing walls also comes at a political price. Since putting up a wall is a one-sided act — the farthest thing from the bilateral reasoning behind drawing state lines — it induces a separation from the neighbouring state, rather than fostering co-operation with it. Israel’s West Bank separation barrier is a major source of tension between Israelis and Palestinians. The Inter­national Court of Justice ruled its construction illegal in 2004, but did that court declare any other wall illegal?

Divided parents and children had to wave across the Berlin Wall for years

The rift created by a wall sends shock waves through other facets of the relationship between the nations. In the case of Trump’s wall, the cost of the split with Mexico is high, given this trade partner’s importance to the US economy as well as to the other bordering states. For refugees, the neighbouring states often serve as filters.

As border walls erode the potential for international cooperation and community, the world’s problems keep growing: food insecurity, ethnic conflicts, environmental crises, climate change, massive displacements of people. Many different problems bring nations to build walls, but they are pointless facades.

And a wall, by itself, is ineffective: it’s easy to scale it, place ramps over the barrier to get a car across, fly drugs over it with drones, or use hydraulic fracturing to dig out narrow tunnels. No wall has ever succeeded in permanently elimin­at­ing contra­band. Ramps, catapults, drones, tunnels, submarines, mules or corrupt border guards can always undermine its eff­ectiveness; or the drug traffic merely shifts elsewhere.

Thanks to Dr Elisabeth Vallet, Centre for Geopolitical Studies, Université du Québec à Montréal.


Kim Hjelmgaard said...

Other notable examples: Finland: About 450 miles of barbed wire fencing prevent reindeer from wandering across the border into Russia. France: The mile-long wall at Calais was funded by the United Kingdom to prevent migrants from accessing the Channel Tunnel that connects Britain to continental Europe. Morocco: A 1,700-mile sand wall fortified and surrounded by millions of land mines was built by Morocco in 1975 along disputed, ungoverned territory on its border with Western Sahara. Spain: More than two decades ago, the Spanish government built 20-foot concrete barriers to wall off Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish-administered enclaves in Morocco since the 15th century, to increase border security against African migrants. Saudi Arabia: In 2014, Saudi Arabia built a 550-mile-long wall with Iraq, a response to the rise of the Islamic State militants sweeping across parts of that country.
Turkey: A buffer zone splits the island of Cyprus and its capital Nicosia between Turkey and Greece. Nicosia is arguably the last city in the world physically separated by a wall.

Kim Hjelmgaard,
USA Today
May 24, 2018

Hels said...


most of those walls I had never heard of, except in Nicosia decades ago which was a real shock to us Australians. Another wall I had never heard of is much more recent. The Norway–Russia border barrier was built a couple of years ago by Norway, to stop migrants flooding in via Russia from Syria.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Dr. Vallet's points are all well-taken. One can think of even more reasons against walls. It must affect people psychologically to live on either side of a border wall--even if you live on the "right" side, it must be depressing and even paranoia-inducing to always think that you are under attack from the other side--which you can't even see anymore.

She points out several times that the migrants and refugees are the most hurt by the walls, and I would agree that other, more fair, considerate and reasonable solutions are better, but after all, the point of the walls are to discourage these very people from entering, so that is probably not an argument to stop the Trumps of this world.

Also, while the walls will give a lot of business to construction and security, the article notes the concomitant problems, and furthermore the generated income does not add to the country's productivity, but the expense will detract from the economy.

In an odd way, we are becoming desensitized to such long walls. Ugly sound barriers for highways stretch for miles, blocking out views and making driving monotonous (and perhaps more dangerous, because the barriers' patterns can become hypnotic). After just a few years, the barriers deteriorate and need expensive replacement or repair. I can understand wanting to limit noise pollution, but I wonder if these barriers create more problems than they solve, including getting people used to the idea of endless walls.

Hels said...


it is a complex article in The Conversation, containing a range of connected and unconnected discussions. But I am grateful to Vallet because most bloggers would probably not bother reading her core work, the book "Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity?"

But are we are becoming desensitised to horrible border walls? Do we even know about them, apart from Trump's project of course? The Berlin Wall was so divisive and so destructive, it was in the news all the time from 1961 to 1991. There were such wild celebrations when the Berlin Wall was finally demolished, most people believed there would never be a wall again.

Joseph said...

Ineffective also because it is too easy to fire rockets over a wall.

Andrew said...

Very well argued. It just occurred to me that there must be a terrible effect on wildlife too.

Unknown said...

Dear Helen

Sorry this is off the topic. I've just been going through some papers and found a letter from a Helen Webberley of North Caulfield, relating to a Summer Academy in Canterbury around 1993. Have I found the correct Helen? If so it would be great to hear how things are with you.

Best wishes


Hels said...


the irony is that walls are often built against neighbouring countries that want to send in invading soldiers. The issue is that those walls are ineffective, as you say, because rockets can be fired over the top.

Yet in a city that is internally divided by a wall, like Nicosia, the wall is only to separate families and communities WITHIN the city. No rockets will be fired over the wall inside those cities.

Hels said...


life is very bleak near a wall - on the houses, shops, wildlife, agriculture etc. Concrete blocks and razor wire lie everywhere... tanks drive over the area at will.

Hels said...


I loved going to the Summer Academy, as often as I could, back then :)

Welcome aboard "Art and Architecture, mainly"

Deb said...

Hi Helen

the paper didn't mention the portion of Warsaw that was allocated as the city ghetto. The Germans had to quickly built 18 ks of solid brick walls around the Jewish quarter in 1940. The intent was to keep the prisoners in, not to keep foreigners out.

Hels said...


You are correct. There were 410,000 Jews put inside the Warsaw Ghetto which covered an area of only 1.3 square miles. So effective was the ghetto wall that 83,000 died of starvation while trying to get out.

The wall came down in 1943, but those who hadn't died earlier were deported to a death camp.

Jenny Woolf said...

Walls designed to keep whole populations in or out are always demoralising and often evil. But I only recently noticed that in the late 70s the world population was approximately half of what it is now. It has risen from about 3.7 to about 7.5 billion - did you realise this? (You probabyl did - I'm often the last to twig.) Then I wondered how much pressure the number of humans must be putting on the world's resources, and so in part driving climate change, habitat loss and accelerating extinctions, reducing food and water supplies and creating more social instability. And then I got to thinking that those of us in developed countries do assume we can consume and waste as much as we feel like, since we can pay for it. And like the aristocrats of revolutionary Europe, we don't notice all those millions of people with lives made unliveable by poverty, watching us chucking away things they'd literally die to have. And if they do risk their lives to come and live with us and get some of our good life for themselves, who can blame them? We certainly have no God given right to anything. So perhaps building more walls is an instinctive response to the idea that the flow of have-nots might increase to a torrent of desperate people determined to take all our stuff. To me his makes wall building seem more like a symptom than the main issue. What do you think? (Hope this makes sense. It's getting a bit late here) :)

Hels said...


nod...as much as we hate to admit it, wealthy countries do not want to share their vast resources even with their _own_ working-class families, let alone with dirty, unemployed, grotty communities in the countries next door. Thus, for example, the USA would want to block off all unwanted movement from the impoverished south, but are perfectly happy to interact at will with Canadians.

But sometimes it is not an economic issue that makes neighbours totally undesirable. I can imagine horrible conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims, for example, that differ greatly on religious or political divisions, not economic! When the Baghdad Wall was built, the minority Sunni community located on the eastern side of the Tigris River was completely sealed in and manned by armed Iraqi soldiers. The fully concrete wall in Baghdad was built with barriers as tall as 12 feet.