Guest post by Antonella Patteri, PhD Researcher, Birkbeck, UOL. Antonella is on Twitter @AlmaPataramon. 

border walls
EU borders as a circle with barbed wire that come to replace the stars of the EU flag (Mural by BLU – Melilla, Spain)

Anti-immigrant infrastructures are on the rise in Europe. According to a report published by the Centre Delàs and the Transnational Institute, since the 1990s about 1000 km of walls have been constructed to protect EU borders and deal with two parallel ‘crises’: security and migration. In 2017, it was possible to count fourteen walls built close to EU Schengen countries borders – including Macedonia as part of the Balkan Route - to stop migratory flows. These physical walls came to complement more established digital barriers (Andersson 2016).

After two-decades long conflict in Afghanistan culminated with the fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021 at the hands of Taliban forces , anxious wall building is being more strongly advocated by some EU countries as a shared solution to ‘achieve security’ at a broader level. In the context of populist waves in Europe calling for a fortification of borders, Lithuania and Poland are now responding to a growing number of migrants reaching the EU via Belarus by imposing short-sighted migration measures (Dempsey 2021). Most recently, the Polish Council of Ministers approved the decision to build a new border wall along the border shared with Belarus inspired by Greek fencing at the border with Turkey (ECRE 2021).

In a four-page letter addressed to EU commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas and EU home-affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, dated 7 October 2021, interior ministers from 12 member states demanded the European Commission to update the EU legal framework on external borders surveillance in sight of new emerging realities. The ministers argued for a more substantial containment of hybrid-threats and ‘illegal migration’ as the security of the whole EU is being challenged by third countries blackmailing and political pressure. In addition to the Schengen Border Code (SBC) revision of articles 18 and 23, and in line with recital 6, the states asked the EU financing of border-wall projects to protect external borders and prevent illegal border crossings sustaining that: “Physical barrier appears to be an effective border protection measure that serves the interest of whole EU, not just Member States of first arrival”.

Is it necessarily true that physical barriers can be an “effective border protection”? What purposes do border walls serve, and what are the consequences of wall building?

Walls aim to fix space in time, and, in the broader sense, the border wall works as a concept, meaning “a political divider that comprises complex technologies, control methods, legislative provisions and securing the border discourse” (Vallet and David 2012, 112). Rosière and Jones (2012) talk of “teichopolitics” – from the Greek word teichos meaning ‘city wall’ – identifying it as the politics of building barriers to strengthen control of borders for numerous security purposes. Teichopolitics is primarily concerned with controlling migration so that citizens’ privilege can be protected and undesirable movements can be prevented through hardened borders. While there are different typologies of border barriers, and these cannot be reduced to walls or fences, these are the most common and visible infrastructures of containment. Containment is about “selectively differentiating” between good and bad flows (Ferrer-Gallardo 2008) so that barriers can direct how and when borders should materially stay open or closed. Walls are gateways, punctuated by checkpoints that are modulated by state authorities, technologies and policies adopted to control and obstruct movement. As such, walls do not fully halt migration flows per se but interrupt movement and capture data (Pallister-Wilkins 2016), violently impacting migration routes and people’s crossings (Jones 2016).  

More than being motivated by the need of border protection, ‘wall-announcing’ and ‘wall-narratives’ today seem to be fuelled by the need to extend the potential of border security and impact citizens’ border imaginaries. Walls mark nation-state sovereignty projecting ideas that borders should stay close. As Brown (2017) has highlighted in Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, the progressive erosion of nation state sovereignty has been followed by global wall building where the protection of territory and its people is staged for the purpose of maintaining alive the fiction of state authority. The political relevance of walling today consists in their capacity to perform the image of the border so that this can be thought to exist as integral to states’ capacity to articulate security as protection.

The desire to establish border walls, therefore, is grounded in their capacity to function as visual signifiers of safety. Borders display their theatricality by performing rituals of control, regulation, and differentiation where the staging of spectacle ensures their securability (Amoore and Hall 2010). Rituals that are performed at borders, as in theatre, form these sequences that serve to make a series of migratory categories recognisable. Within these border performances, the existence of walls is predicated upon the necessity to make these rituals governable. Walls are theatrical as they pretend to border, making acceptable and necessary their existence tout court.

Walls, from these perspectives, are simultaneously physical barriers and symbolic expressions of political boundaries (Till et al. 2013) that reproduce a clear line between those who belong and those who do not (Minca and Rijke 2017). Europe’s new walls reflect this need of defending the integrity of the union against the outsiders while also punctuating belonging for the insiders. The myth of ‘Fortress Europe’ finds its raison d’être through narratives of walling-in-and-out identities where migrants mostly materialise as criminals. Claims that physical barriers are the most effective way to secure borders often miss the question of who is most in need of protection, citizens or migrants? Territorial borders or people?

Deconstructing the purpose of walls requires us to refocus our attention from walls as physical borders to wall narratives that often turn migrants seeking international protection into ‘illegal’ beings, therefore becoming an extension of the same violent border that many people attempt to cross (Amoore 2006). For instance, while in the demands of the 12 member states to finance physical barriers in the EU there is an explicit reference to the need to respect human rights, the very idea that border walls should exist to separate people contradicts this statement as they deeply harm migrants, mediating their access to asylum. Ultimately, the real question then is not if the EU needs new walls, but how it is going to intervene to break the many physical walls that from Calais to Greece impact migrants’ life, rights and mobility reminding us that borders need always to be seen through walls that divide.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Patteri, A. (2021). Deconstructing Border Walls in the EU. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/01/deconstructing [date]