All Border Walls Have Something in Common

Wherever border barriers are built, they are inefficient and depressing; and yet populist politicians love them.

Walls divide, but don't conquer.

Photoghrapher: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

I spent most of the last two days driving and walking along the border fence at Brownsville, Texas. It's not the first barrier of this kind that I've seen. They're going up everywhere -- in more than 40 countries now: Donald Trump's calls for a powerful border wall are part of a trend. Though their reasons for existence, styles and histories vary, they are also similar in several important ways.

The first similarity is the free human being's natural emotional reaction to living close to a fence that usually breaks a vibrant cross-border community in two. In 1973, German psychologist Dietfried Mueller-Hegemann published a book describing the symptoms of something he called the Wall Disease. East Germans living next to the Berlin Wall suffered from depression, alcoholism and other signs of hating their life more than their luckier compatriots who lived further away from the wall. In other areas neighboring walls the symptoms are different, but the psychological pressure is equally harsh.

I found strong feelings about the border fence in Brownsville, especially among the local Hispanics who perceive a racist motive in the wall-building. Palestinians I met in Bethlehem a few years ago were equally insulted by Israel's massive effort to tell them they were not welcome. For many of them, the 26-foot concrete wall disrupted religious practices: They now need permission from Israeli troops to get to certain mosques on the Israeli side.

Recently built European walls, meant to impede Middle Eastern and African migrants' passage into northern Europe, have white Christians and often fellow European Union citizens on both sides. Yet the emotions are still strong. Slovenians feel mistreated and ignored by their own government which built a fence on the country's southern border, with Croatia. The Austrian government, which in turn blocked off Slovenia's northern border, was forced to leave a 800-meter gap in its chain link fence when Austrian winemakers protested that the barrier would disrupt their production chains. It also faced a principled rebellion from a local bishop.  

In short, locals always hate fences because they are a nuisance and often an affront to their humanity: Whether they are made of chain link or concrete slabs, they are persuasive evidence of what governments can do to citizens who are not guilty of any crime and who think -- wrongly -- that their private property is sacrosanct. 

There is one more reason people in border areas, who know the most about the fences, hate them -- and one more similarity. The walls never work as intended.

As I went down to the Rio Grande near Brownsville, I found wet clothing in the reeds: People who swim across the river from Mexico bring dry clothes in plastic bags and drop the soaked ones before marching through the numerous gaps in the fence. 

As I and two University of Texas employees drove along the levee parallel to the wall, we encountered at least half a dozen border patrol trucks on a 10-mile stretch of dirt road. We only had to explain to the first one what we were up to, and the rest smiled and waved. Then we passed a two-mile gap in the 16-foot fence without a patrolman in sight. Then the wall picked up again, and sure enough, there was one right there. I asked him about the unmanned, unwalled stretch of levee. "It's a funnel point," he said. "Many people cross here. You may get lucky and see one."

He was guarding the funnel, waiting for sensors to go off: In that area, the fence serves to direct the border crossers to certain paths, almost to bait them. That's pretty much what happens in Europe. As in Brownsville, walls and fences have gaps for local roads, and since the Schengen borderless area is still alive -- there are only random checks on cars on major highways where controls have been reintroduced -- the fences serve for displacement rather than containment. They direct migrants and traffickers to the roads, where they are theoretically easier to catch but where many still slip through the net. 

There are gaps in most of the border fences. On the West bank, I drove my car with Israeli license plates along some back roads and accidentally found myself in Bethlehem, having somehow bypassed the security gates.

Even where there are no gaps, the walls are not exactly watertight. The Berlin wall certainly wasn't, though people were machine-gunned trying to get over it: About 5,000 people somehow managed to escape to West Berlin between 1961 and 1989.

In the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco, where African migrants used to stage mass attacks on the 20-foot fences and some would inevitably get over and into Spanish territory, the walls have been made all but impossible to scale, and concertina wire was put on the top to discourage the most agile climbers. In 2015, the onslaughts practically stopped -- but people continued to get in: With fake papers as traders, hidden in cars, by sea. The number of registered refugees in the enclaves actually increased last year compared to 2014.

Zealously guarding a wall doesn't always help, either. Hamas terrorists have attacked Israel through tunnels dug under the Gaza wall. Now, the Israelis are experimenting with building an underground wall in addition to the above-ground one.

There will always be doubts whether the walls are keeping out the worst of the undesirables: Those, in fact, have the most resources to penetrate the most elaborate defenses. In Brownsville, these are people from the Mexican drug cartels, whose equipment is said to be no less sophisticated than the U.S. border patrols.

Despite this, governments continue to build walls, and a third similarity emerges: There is usually something comical about how these projects are misplanned or altered by the realities of the border communities.

In Brownsville, the nature of the fence suddenly changes as it goes across the University of Texas campus: The rusty iron bars are gone, replaced by much lower, stately white pillars with green netting between them. The university's former president, Juliet Garcia, had taken a stand against the construction of the fence across her campus. She couldn't completely prevent it, so the university offered to pay for its own, prettier fence.

In Austria, after the fence on the Slovenian border went up in 2015, it turned out the authorities were renting the netting for 300,000 euros ($336,000) for six months: They weren't sure they had picked the right kind of barrier. Austria only made the outright purchase last spring.

In Ukraine, which is building a fence and digging trenches on the border with Russia, the government's entrenched inefficiency and corruption has reduced the project to a modest fence with some barbed wire on top -- the kind a farmer could put up to keep out potato thieves. "This is the wall that's supposed to defend us against incursions by the Russian federation," Ukrainian legislator Olena Sotnyk wrote on Facebook last summer along photos of the bucolic fortification.

The final and perhaps most mysterious similarity among the border walls is that despite locals' dismay, the walls' limited effectiveness and the ridiculous situations that arise because of them, politicians keep pushing these projects to people who don't live in border areas and don't like to get into the details. Support is often won with the help of fanciful naming. 

Until recently, it was unfashionable to call a wall a wall. The 2006 U.S. law that led to the emergence of various border walls in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California referred to it as a "secure fence," a more harmless-sounding structure. In Israel, Palestinians call the concrete structure in the West Bank "the Wall of Apartheid," but Israelis call it a "separation barrier."

Now, however, Trump gets applause for his promises of a "beautiful wall," and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk dubbed his country's effort the European Rampart, stressing Ukraine's purported role in defending Europe against Russian aggression. The names are getting closer to the pomp and bravado of the Berlin Wall's official East German name, the "anti-fascist protection bulwark."

When country after country erects walls and leader after leader offers them up as a way of improving security and keeping out those too poor to qualify for entry, it seems pointless to recall the fall of the Berlin Wall. That was a long time ago, when globalization wasn't a dirty world yet. And yet it's important to remember that walls don't last forever. Eventually, political leaders, and voters, may realize that deals -- like the one EU made with Turkey on the return of undocumented migrants, or more ambitious ones like the elusive peace deal for Syria -- are far more useful than walls for reducing migration flows. 

It takes leadership, vision, skill and determination to make those kinds of deals.The degree of enthusiasm for wall-building in a nation is a good indicator of their absence.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at

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