The Dehumanising Politics of Walls

The West Bank Barrier, Bethlehem

Originally published on November 18, 2013, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

On November 9, 1989, the impossible became possible: it marks the fall of the Berlin Wall, as much of a symbol of a dystopian social experiment as it is of hope and human struggle. A physical separation barrier between peoples might seem like a thing from textbooks, a hostile vestige of darker times. However, while some regions are opening up, some are closing down, and barrier systems between countries or regions remain a concept that is very much alive. Unsurprisingly, just like before, the argument used most often to support such policies is human security. Let’s deconstruct this argument into more specific claims and see who is using them and what the consequences of such policy measures are. Although there are more separation barriers globally (for example, the Morocco-West Sahara barrier or a project being developed between Thailand and Malaysia), let’s take a closer look at four or them. 

Migration and Social inequality: US and Brazil

The US started building a system of barriers on its Mexican border in 2006, basing it on curbing illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Currently, this system consists of concrete block walls, metal rods, infrared cameras and other objects built along the border that is over 3,000 kilometres long. To patrol some of its stretches, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are being used. 

Critics are expressing a range of concerns regarding such border protection policy, a part of which can be summarised in the following questions. One, is this really an effective way to prevent illegal immigration? Two, how much does it cost the US taxpayers and is this something they actually want? In 2012, the US government spent $11.7 billion – a record high – on border protection. For context, in the same year, the US defence budget (including military budget) was $925 billion while education received $121 billion. Three, what will its environmental impact be? Lastly, how will that affect the safety and security of migrants and their families? Ironically, a border wall, presented as a protective measure, can hardly protect itself from harsh criticism.

For a different kind of migration, let’s turn to South America. We see that it’s not only inter-state migration that governments aim to stop through physical barriers; it’s also social migration. In 2009, Rio de Janeiro saw a wall of 11 kilometres being built around 19 communities situated in the favelas (city slums), which totalled $17.6 million. While the state government claims the wall is here to protect the rich ecosystems of the hills of Rio from ever-expanding favelas, its critics claim the actual goal of the government is different. It is to minimise social migration by physically separating the city’s areas that suffer from violence and higher crime rates, to keep the social divisions in place. For some, this might seem like a scene from a dystopian piece of fiction where the rich are erecting physical barriers to protect themselves from the poor. And even if it doesn’t seem dystopian, it is nonetheless concerning: in a country where bridging the social inequality gap has been a painfully slow process, any step back shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should be asked what is truly needed to advance the reduction of social inequality and where building walls falls into a long-term vision for Rio and Brazil itself.

The Physical Safety Argument: North Ireland and The West Bank 

In 1969, at the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, structures began to be built to separate Protestant and Catholic communities for what was originally planned to be half a year. Unfortunately, what were supposed to be temporary structures resulted in 21 kilometers of so-called “peace walls”, the majority of which remain in Belfast. The Troubles (1968-1998) saw a sharp division in Northern Ireland, the region vocally and actively separated into two camps: Protestant loyalists who wanted to remain in the UK and Irish Catholics who wanted Northern Ireland to be a part of the Republic of Ireland.  

The fighting between the Irish Republic Army (the IRA) and the Northern Ireland police, and between groups officially not affiliated with these forces, resulted in over 3,000 deaths. Despite the fact that the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, has officially put an end to hostilities, occasional bombings would happen afterwards, increasingly rarely. This year, politicians in Northern Ireland have agreed to tear down the structures by 2023. This is great news: it could signify another phase of healing in the region and serve as an example of undoing historic injustices, both literally and figuratively. 

The barrier that currently separates Israel and the West Bank is presented by the Israeli government as imperative to Israel’s security. In 2002, after the Second Intifada, Israel started to build a separation barrier consisting of concrete blocks, electric fence, observation towers, and other elements. Currently, the barrier is 700 kilometers in total yet it’s officially unfinished and plans to cut into the West Bank more deeply than the administrative border set in 1967. 

Regarding its legality, the verdict is clear here: the International Court of Justice has deemed it illegal. Israeli government claims these structures have helped to reduce suicide attacks in Israel, however, that can be questioned as the very construction of this barrier coincided with the end of the Second Intifada. Even if we choose to leave out the pressing question of Palestinian freedom of movement – continuously obstructed by physical and administrative means – for a moment, many questions remain. How will this affect communities surrounded or completely encircled by this barrier? What will that mean in terms of agriculture and access to livelihoods, transportation, and other aspects of daily lives of the Palestinians living there? What does it mean for any kind of idea of a truly peaceful coexistence? Naturally, these questions are not discussed much by the proponents of this policy. However, these questions are being answered – measured and forecasted – by international organisations like the UN OCHA, pointing to concrete humanitarian impact of this policy. 

Structural Critique

The political motives behind introducing physical barriers might differ from state to state, yet the dilemmas surrounding such policies are rather universal. The first one is whether the arguments presented will be the actual – and the only – impact the barrier would have. For instance, the fact itself that a government is presenting a structure to be a defense wall preventing terrorist attacks doesn’t ensure it will actually serve this purpose, or if it will have an impact at all. As the case of the West Bank Barrier shows, what is called a defense wall can also be used to further obstruct the freedom of movement of a certain population, also claiming more of its land.

Another aspect to question is the very effectiveness of such barriers. To be more precise, what methodology and data used to measure its effectiveness are proposed. For instance, if the number of migrants crossing the border is decreasing, how much of that can be attributed to the wall itself and how much is due to a deteriorating economic situation in the country? In 2012, the US border patrol consisted of close to 20,000 officers, and a bill passed this June aims to double this number. Will investing billions into this project result in less illegal migration, and, more importantly, are the US taxpayers happy to see their tax money going towards border patrol when there are other areas that could benefit from increased funding? 

The Human Cost 

Probably the most important and definitely the most uncomfortable question regarding any physical barrier is how it will affect the populations on the other side. It’s been calculated that since 1994, after Bill Clinton introduced stricter border patrol measures, over 5,000 migrants have died trying to cross the US-Mexico border. The border patrol agents are often criticised for using excessive force, for example, shooting at people throwing rocks from the other side of the wall. 

The long-term consequences of policies and measures like these can be extremely harmful and outweigh the benefits presented (even if we assume that these benefits will materialise). Dehumanisation of the “other”, increase in negative stereotypes about the groups of people that the wall “protects” the host country from, and potential fear mongering inside of the country. Let’s not forget that a wall has a price, but it also has a cost. There’s a danger in seeing walls as an answer to complex and intersectoral issues. The longer they stand, the more dehumanisation we might see, labelling people on the other side as dangerous “others”. 

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