Border fence trend: “The state is alive and well”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has announced to hold a press event near the Mexican border today.

His visit comes after controversial remarks about undocumented Mexican immigrants who are supposed to be stopped by the fence. The US-Mexican border fence may be one of the most prominent fortified boundaries, but is by far not the only one. In total 45 barriers were built since 1945, and most of these after the year 2000.

This is one of the key findings in an upcoming article by Ron Hassner, associate professor at the Charles and Louise Travers department of political science at UC Berkeley and his co-author Jason Wittenberg (International Security, “Barriers to Entry:  Who Builds Fortified Boundaries and Why?”, Vol. 40:1, Summer 2015, find an earlier version of the paper here.)

ResearchGate: Do border fences make sense at all and if yes, when and why?

Ron Hassner: States seem to think that they do.  Terrorists can't walk through walls and most of the fortified barriers we've examined seem to be very effective. The massive barrier that Morocco built in the Western Sahara ended the Polisario insurgency and the smaller barrier that Israel built along the West Bank stopped Palestinian suicide terrorism. These barriers don't usually stop individuals from crossing the border altogether but they slow them down, allow border patrol units to detect the crossing, or channel illicit crossings into particular areas (far from cities, for example).

Other states have observed these projects and seem to have concluded that they are effective. This explains why most of the barriers in the world right now are constructed by Muslim-majority states against other Muslim-majority states: the Middle East is the region in which these barriers have proven most necessary and most effective.

RG: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said “building a wall is easy, and it can be done inexpensively. It’s not even a difficult project if you know what you’re doing.” You’ve studied many of these walls. What do you say to that?  

Hassner: Building fortified borders is not hard (or so we suspect, given how many states are now doing it) but it is expensive, anywhere between $1-$5 million per mile depending on the components (just a fence, a wall, or also trenches, electrified wire, cameras, detection equipment, guard towers?).

Since a simple fence is pretty much useless, a truly fortified barrier tends to be costly. Estimates we've seen for the U.S.-Mexico fluctuate around one billion dollars ($1-2 million for each of 700 miles). Whether that counts as expensive is of course dependent on which state is building it and the anticipated benefits of the barrier

RG: In your paper “Barriers to Entry: Who Builds Fortified Boundaries and Why?” you found that half of all post-World War II border barriers were built in the last 15 years. What do you think the reason is for the sudden surge in fences?

Hassner: It seems to be some combination of new threat and new technology.  Growing disparities in wealth (as result of economic success or oil booms), the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the recent track record of successful barriers has led one state after another to copy salient barrier examples.  Once a state has noticed how effective its neighbors' barriers are, they are likely to emulate their example.

RG: Will the trend of richer countries fencing themselves in continue? To what end?  

Hassner: We can't know for sure but we suspect that it will.  It's much easier to put up barriers than to tear them down and the causes for barrier building are not going away.  Barriers neither cause nor resolve the underlying problem.  As long as illegal immigration, illicit cross-border commerce, and cross-border terrorism continue, fortified barriers will prove an effective means of limiting and controlling (but not eliminating) these threats.


RG: How do see Hungary’s efforts to put up a fence along its border to Serbia to keep out refugees? Will it be “effective?”

Hassner: It's hard to tell before we know the technical specifics of that fence. Where will it be built, how tall, how wide, electrified? Who will guard it? What sort of surveillance will be used? Effectiveness is very difficult to estimate because it requires information that states are not keen to share. This information could include how many refugees managed to cross the border before the fence was built?  How many succeeded in crossing after it was built?

It also requires a good deal of guesswork:  How many refugees were deterred from even attempting to cross the border because of the fence?  How many would cross it today if the fence did not exist?

All that said, the state of Hungary, for one, seems to think that the fence will work or, at the very least, that it is a reasonable way of placating Hungarians who are concerned about refugees.

RG: You list economic stability and security as reasons for putting up fences. In how far do you think fortified borders are also a demonstration of power in a changing world? Or are they a demonstration of fear?

Hassner: They’re neither: They are a straightforward way of protecting one's citizens and territory.  If we had to propose one symbolic impact of this barrier construction trend, we would say this:  There's been much talk about globalization, a borderless world in which people, goods and ideas flow seamlessly from place to place. The eagerness with which states embrace fortified boundaries seems to belie that notion, or at least that there remains significant resistance to it.  The state (a government in control of clearly bounded territory) is alive and well and its citizens intend to keep it that way.

Image courtesy of Tony Webster