Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Border Walls Are Ineffective, Costly and Fatal -- but We Keep Building Them

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Border Walls Are Ineffective, Costly and Fatal -- but We Keep Building Them

Article excerpt

Border walls are ineffective, costly and fatal -- but we keep building them

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Elisabeth Vallet, Director - Center for Geopolitical Studies, Universite du Quebec à Montreal

It seems like every month brings news of another border wall going up.

Europe's Baltic States, worried about invasive neighbours, are raising a fence along their eastern frontier. Meanwhile, in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping is calling for the building of an iron wall around the Xinjiang region.

In Latin America, Ecuador appears to have begun erecting concrete panels along the Peruvian state line. In Africa, a barrier between Somalia and Kenya, made of barbed wire, concrete and posts, is nearing completion.

This is a far cry from the illusion generated by the fall of the Berlin Wall -- and by the utopian dream of a world without borders that emerged in the 1990s.

The Wall: a new status quo in international relations

At the end of the Cold War there were just 15 walls delimiting national borders; today, with 70 of them in existence around the world, the wall has become the new standard for international relations.

With the proliferation of border walls and their normalization in the rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump, democracies have adopted the tactic as though it were a classic policy tool in foreign relations and defence.

And yet these rampant fortifications come at a hefty price, as much for the governments and international relations as for the local economies and populations affected. For those most vulnerable, for the middle class, for those pushed out by the walls (Saskia Sassen's "expelled" peoples), the cost is exorbitant.

As symptoms of a rift in the world order, as manifestations of the failings of international cooperation, these barriers also come at a cost to those they shut out -- the world's "untouchables".

The reality is that, despite being entrenched in international law, their freedom of movement is not as valuable as others', each passport carrying its own set of rights.

The financial cost of border walls

First, we must consider the financial cost of border walls. Each one is a boon to the security and construction industries (many players from the former having adapted to changes in the post-Cold War defence market).

The experience in United States provides many examples of the cost of a massive border infrastructure. This typically involves not just a physical wall with stone foundations, posts, and even concrete panels, but also razor wire, cameras, heat sensors, movement detectors, drones and patrol personnel, dogs or robots, among other things.

That's because a wall, by itself, doesn't really work: it's easy to scale it, put up a ladder, place ramps over the barrier to get a car across, fly drugs over it with drones, or use hydraulic fracturing to dig out narrow tunnels to circumvent it.

In fact, in 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office placed the cost for building just a fence along California's border at between $1 million Cdn and $6.4 million Cdn per kilometre. In harsher terrain jurisdictionally and geologically, such as the Texas state line, the building cost could be as much as $21 million a kilometre.

Maintaining it for 20 years will cost an estimated $8.5 billion; it is therefore a massive public infrastructure, akin to a giant highway, that eats away at a country's public finances and, in turn, at overall disposable income (whether funding comes from public sources or in part from private sources).

So this financial burden is also an economic weight that drags down the country's aggregate income as well as the local economy. The latter, often significantly affected by the slowing down and redefining of cross-border activity, legal or otherwise, is sometimes put on life support in the form of an influx of military or patrol personnel, construction crews and staff for related services (restaurants, hotels, and so on). …

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