Comment: Fences don't make us safe

Dr Polly Pallister-Wilkins
Dr Polly Pallister-Wilkins

By Polly Pallister-Wilkins

The last decade has seen an increase in the process of wall and fence building that seems somewhat incongruous in an era of apparent unprecedented globalisation and human movement. Britain got over its penchant for building walls as a policy solution to the sectarianism of Northern Ireland and the subsequent peace process was hailed as a triumph of liberal inclusion, even if the walls themselves remained. The same cannot be said for elsewhere however. Recent moves by Greece to fence off part of its border with Turkey, Israel's continued use of fence building, India's Bangladesh border fence and Spain's re-fortifying of its exclaves, Ceuta and Melilla are just a few examples of a process of walling that is seen as a logical policy response to a range of diverse threats.

Cities and states have historically sought to protect themselves through the construction of walls and fences. From the moats and drawbridges of old to the modern day high-tech motion sensor fences of today this is a process as old as human settlement itself. But as a policy response to a host of divergent problems – terrorism, nationalist movements, environmental degradation, refugees, migrants, organised crime and smuggling – it is somewhat lacking in imagination. If only because the policy of walling seems to be one that requires ever more fences to respond to problems caused by those that went before.

Here the example of Israel is insightful. No stranger to fence building and most famous for its system of walls and fences snaking through the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel in recent months has turned once again to walling as a policy solution to what it sees as the threat posed by southern migration from Africa. In November 2011 the Israeli government announced a plan to fence the border between itself and Egypt. Now it seems this fence is not enough.

Human ingenuity for technological solutions to social problems is matched only by human ingenuity in finding ways quite literally around such technological solutions. In an example of this, the Israeli government – having realised that migrant routes, being fluid and reactive are liable to change, heading across the Red Sea and into Israel via Jordan – announced earlier this week that it is now planning to fence its border with Jordan also. This would have the result of Israel entirely fencing itself in from a host of threats.

But why? In the same week when Turkey's Foreign Minister on a visit to Brussels reacted with sadness at Greece's fence building project in Evros, saying that it was an act of division between the EU and the outside world. Echoing the carefully honed liberal rhetoric of the EU itself Egemen Bagis said Europe needed to talk of bridges not walls. "It is not the time to talk about new walls in Europe - we need to talk about new bridges. Europe paid the cost of walls in the recent past and ... everyone should work to build new bridges between different views, different cultures and different countries." Such a lecture from the Turkish Foreign Minister is an appeal to the supposed liberal values at the heart of the European project and supposedly at the heart of globalisation itself which makes the symbol of the Evros fence all the more potent. A symbol of Europe fencing itself off or in?

Of course walls and fences are always more than just symbols. They are real material structures meant to deter, block and create a sense of security, whether or not they in fact do any such thing. The efficacy of walls and fences to actually provide the much needed security against threat that they promise is worthy of critical reflection as such reflection exposes such fence building to be the lazy policy solution that it is.

Let's take the Evros fence. The fence will run for 12.5km along the Greek-Turkish border and while situated to reflect the pressure of migratory flows the Greek-Turkish border is considerably longer than 12.5km. Will Greece be forced to fence its entire border and all its beaches, when like Israel it realises that migrants and migrant flows react, shift and move. Or is the fence a cynical symbolic gesture to calm a panicked public under siege from a five-year recession and stringent government austerity measures?

Let's also take the fences of Ceuta and Melilla, which were re-enforced in 2005. These fences, while preventing migrants reaching this bit of Europe in Africa, simultaneously shift migrant routes east into Algeria, Tunisia and Libya and onto Malta and Lampedusa. Thus Spain's success is Malta and Italy's pain. In addition the fences - while seemingly designed to remove the relating problems of human border encounters, such as death and bribery - in fact only shift the problem of border policing onto the Moroccans who are charged with preventing people reaching the fences in the first place. Meanwhile thousands of Moroccans move in and out of the two exclaves daily, both legally and clandestinely as the economies of these two frontier cities are reliant not on Spain but on the surrounding Moroccan population and their legal and illegal capital which is more suggestive of their place in a wider networked world than attempts to contain them through fences suggests.

Fences are seemingly an easy solution to a growing sense of domestic uneasiness. They are borne out of causes as concrete as economic recession and its social consequences or as un-tangible and divergent as threats from terrorism and climate change. Yet this reassertion of good-old-fashioned state sovereignty fails to provide the panacea they claim. Instead a greater need for walls and fences, burden shifting and isolation, is created. What is clear is that building a fence to guard against the effects of climate change will stop the tide, but won't prevent its creation.

Dr Polly Pallister-Wilkins is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her research focuses on the processes of wall and fence building under contemporary globalisation and migration policy in the Mediterranean. She can be followed on Twitter at:!/PollyWilkins

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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