Can't keep us out.

Photographer: Angela Rios/AFP/Getty Images

The Irony of Hungary's Border Wall

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Hungary's preparations to build a 13-foot-tall fence along the Serbian border are part of a trend. Such barriers have multiplied, not dwindled, since the end of the Cold War, but their purpose is the opposite of what it was when the Berlin Wall still stood: They are meant to keep poor people out.

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is considered the official end of the Cold War, but it was the Hungarians who first breached the Iron Curtain. In May of that year, they started tearing down the 150-mile wall that separated their country from Austria. So it seems ironic that Hungary should now want to build a new border barrier. Nor would it be the first former Eastern bloc country to do so: Bulgaria is restoring the wall that once separated it from capitalist Turkey.

In the 2014 book "Borders, Fences and Walls," Elisabeth Vallet put the number of border walls built between 1945 and 1991 at 19. After the Cold War, 12 remained standing, most of them outside Europe. There were still fences, for example, between India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and North Korea and South Korea. But while Europe enjoyed a happy period of drawing together after the Cold War, the rest of the world wasn't so lucky: Fourteen more walls were built between 1991 and al-Qaeda's attack on the U.S. in 2001. By now, the 1991 number has tripled.

It isn't clear that Sept. 11 was the catalyst for all this wall construction. Vallet wrote:

What initially could be interpreted as a tightening of security spurred by 9/11 proved to be a ratchet effect produced by the reaction against fast-paced globalization, which had not been wholeheartedly embraced by many members of the international community.

She went on:

The purpose of new walls has been not so much to convert a front line into a de facto border as to address two threats: migrants and terrorists (the two sometimes overlap or blend in the pro-wall discourse). The upshot has been the creation of a worldwide wall of globalization that has become virtually impossible for the migrants from the South to scale.

That isn't strictly true, of course. Both virtual walls (visas, deportations and other humiliating procedures) and physical ones have proved hindrances to would-be migrants, but they haven't been impenetrable. Watch African migrants celebrate after scaling the formidable fence in Melilla, the Spanish enclave in North Africa. See documentary filmmaker James O'Keefe cross the border from Mexico into the U.S., dressed as Osama bin Laden, despite hundreds of miles of fence built by the U.S. government along that line. Remember the tunnels dug by Gaza militants under the concrete wall Israel built to keep them out. 

Last year, I used back roads to drive into a fenced-off area on the West Bank. No one stopped me, and no one would have stopped any potential terrorists from driving in the opposite direction.

That doesn't mean the walls are completely ineffective. Migrants tend to switch to routes they see as more welcoming. The construction of walls on the Greek and Bulgarian borders with Turkey in recent years, for example, has increased the number of war-zone refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean into Italy. 

Hungary's new wall is meant to keep out these refugees, most of whom come from Syria. They go from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece, defying the fences there or crossing by boat from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands. Then they ride (if they can afford to pay smugglers) or walk across Macedonia and Serbia to get into central Europe. In the Balkan nations, they are often robbed of their remaining possessions and harassed by police -- but, as punk rocker Joe Strummer sang, "If you really want to go, you'll get there in the end."

Soon they will be met by another fence on the Hungarian border. The Hungarian government says the country is taking in a disproportionate number of migrants. It estimates that as many as 130,000 undocumented immigrants will arrive this year. For a country of 10 million, that would be a serious burden -- if the refugees didn't mostly intend to move on, often to Germany. There, the government has been making an honest effort to receive those with legitimate asylum claims. Although 61 percent of Germans are against non-EU immigration, "Immigrants are welcome" graffiti is common on German streets and dozens of locals turn out to protest deportations.

That vocal minority understands that walls are not a solution when the world has the most refugees since 1945: About 60 million people have been displaced from their homes, most by armed conflicts. People in the former Communist countries -- some of which oppose a European plan to establish a quota system for refugees -- should be the first to realize this. Their former rulers built walls to keep them from seeking opportunity, which they eventually tore down. Western Europe, which they aspired to join, welcomed them, although it could have treated them as Syrian refugees are treated today. 

What's needed isn't a better fortress, but a better plan.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net