Our modern world now has more borderlines than ever before in human history. Not only that, but walls, barriers and fences, and the repressive border policies that go with them, are in clear view across the political, and consequently physical, landscape. At the end of the Cold War, just 12 border walls stood around the globe. Today that figure has risen to 74, with the majority constructed since the beginning of the 2000s. What is becoming less clear, however, is what they are actually dividing.
While bordering has existed for millennia, how borders are conceived and operated has changed considerably. Our present system is only 350 years old, product of a peace treaty—the 1648 settlement of Westphalia—drawn up after decades of European religious war. Its basic principle established the right of a monarch’s exclusive authority over religion, government, taxation, law and the military within a specific geographical area. Where previously political dominion in feudal Europe had been impossible to map spatially, borders offered clear lines of separation and control.
Out of this came the concept of sovereignty and later the emergence of the nation state and nationalism. Borders were the conduits for shared stories of culture and belonging—for those inside the lines. But, as the supremacy of religion was replaced by the new god of industrialism, they also became the means of corralling resources, of establishing colonies, wealth and empire. For a time, borders were always on the move, being drawn and redrawn and rubbed out by expansionist powers: a process that culminated, ultimately, in the devastation of two World Wars.
What we have today however (with the obvious exception of Russia’s war with Ukraine, a conflict driven by Vladimir Putin’s manic nostalgia to reclaim the borders of a long-lost motherland) is a calcification, a closing-off. Less of nation from nation, though, than of rich from poor. By the summer of 2022, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that the global number of forcibly displaced people had passed 100 million for the first time. Largely, the rise of the latest generation of border walls is aimed at controlling, funnelling, and stemming the flow of these displaced (along with many others seeking to leave the borders within which they were born). Or, rather, the walls are aimed at being seen to stem the flow.
The efficacy of border barriers—particularly given the spectacular costs of their construction—is often limited when measured in terms of preventing movement and entry. The symbolism, on the other hand, is potent. Take the U.S.-Mexico border wall. In recent years, there have been two bizarre attempts to have fragments of it designated as national monuments of special cultural significance. The first, in late 2017, was a piece of satire by a Swiss conceptual artist proposing that the Trump-administration’s border wall prototypes be preserved as land art. The second, in April 2021, came from former Republican Congressional Representative, Madison Cawthorn, who put forward a draft bill for designating 400 miles of border wall in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as a national monument with “permanent protection from alteration.”
The sad prospect of a line of rusting steel being held up as an icon of national identity tells us much about the shifting nature of borders. Walls appeal to voter bases who want to see strength on the frontiers. They offer up images of power and security which the barriers themselves—relics of a simpler era before globalisation and the internet—simply cannot guarantee. Meanwhile, the real bordering increasingly happens elsewhere, far beyond the lines of national territory.
The British government’s attempt to transfer refugees washing up on its shores to the African state of Rwanda, 4,000 miles to the south, is, in essence, a bid to “outsource” its borderline for those it deems ineligible for direct entry. U.S. Border Patrol has operated not just at the southern border with Mexico, but also beyond Mexico’s own southern border: an initiative begun in 2019 saw agents deployed to Guatemala with the specific objective of working with local law enforcement to help decrease the flow of migrants to the U.S. In 2021 the E.U.’s dedicated border agency Frontex was accused of training and equipping the Libyan Coast Guard as a proxy border force, dedicated to ensuring that migrants crossing the Mediterranean were returned to Africa, to be held in appalling conditions in militia-run prisons or detention camps that were indirectly supported by E.U. humanitarian aid. This trend of reaching beyond national borders—beyond traditional sovereignty—was driven in no small part by the goal of identifying potential terror threats in the wake of 9/11. But over time it has evolved into something else: a mechanism for projecting buffer zones, virtual borders, far out across the world. Making what were once migrant jumping-off points, like the North African coast, into migrant stopping points.
Alongside this has emerged a new data landscape. As our governments gather and store ever more information about us—often now sharing it with other states as part of joint security arrangements—the process of international travel is as much about the journey of our digital surrogates as it is about our ‘analogue’ selves. In July 2022, when the British Home Secretary announced an initiative to create a ‘contactless digital border’ so that the U.K. border could become the ‘most effective in the world’, these implications were made plain. And, in January this year, when the Biden administration outlined its new measures for border enforcement to ‘expand and expedite legal pathways for orderly migration’, a key component was an online portal for migrants— with a smartphone app that can begin the process of digitising the undocumented. Borders are pushing outwards, but they are also, simultaneously, looking inwards. Focussing on the unique terrain of the individual.
Such developments—particularly in the wealthy, data-obsessed global north—are surely inevitable. But it does beg the question: what happens to people from less technologically advanced parts of the world? Could those who have no digital presence, the poorest and most unfortunate, be ‘bordered’ out of large swathes of the earth? (And might this be the point?). And even for the data-rich citizen, the implications are unclear. The importance of the individual has always been at the heart of the development of universal human rights. At the same time, as we have seen in China, data-driven state-surveillance has become a tool for exercising all-encompassing authoritarian social control—bordering behaviours, rewarding the patriotic and punishing the non-patriotic. This is a long way from guards on a wall, looking out for intruders on the horizon.
The reality is that borders as we know them—or as we thought we knew them—are fracturing and failing. While many may cling to the illusion offered by walls and fences, these barriers, and the cartographical lines that they mark, have already become semi-symbolic spaces, as the political focus shifts beyond them towards managing and arresting the global movement of the displaced, or zooms in on the minutiae of the personal.
What all this ignores, of course, is that humanity does have one true, indisputable borderline. As a 2020 research study revealed, for the past 6,000 years at least, the vast majority of people have lived in the same, strikingly narrow slice of the total available climate space on earth (where mean annual temperature is between 11 and 15C). Yet, with the impacts of global warming, this human climate niche, is projected to move more in the next 50 years than in the previous six millennia. The study posed the hypothetical notion that, if humans in the future are to avoid living in places where they, by and large, have never lived, and follow the migration of the niche, then you get the staggering figure of 3.5 billion on the move. And if people don’t move then, by 2070, potentially one third of humanity will be living in conditions currently found in only a handful of places, most of which are currently in the Sahara Desert.
Many other species are already migrating en masse—plants and animals heading towards the poles, retreating from valleys to places higher up hills and mountains. Many (although not all) are almost entirely unencumbered by walls and political borders. Humanity long ago renounced such unfettered freedom of movement. And as our species niche drifts rapidly across the hemispheres, what will our artificial borders do? Flex or open? Harden? Or break apart completely under the strain?
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