In recent years, fence-making has become a booming business. The US-Mexico border is traced by pedestrian fences and vehicle barriers that stretch from the Pacific Ocean to the mouth of the Rio Grande. The Israeli “security barrier” seeks to keep terrorists out, while its more recent counterpart between the Sinai and Negev deserts targets African refugees and migrants. Around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, as well as at the Greek-Turkish land border, similar anti-migration fences have been erected. Bulgaria is now following suit with its own barrier.
Most informed migration commentators agree that such fencing is useless. They see barriers and fences as a psychological defense against concrete systemic failures. One cannot deal with immigration by building higher and sharper fences since migrants will always find another way in. By creating ever more dramatic and dangerous entry methods, barriers feed the phenomenon they are meant to address – which in turn tends to ensure their reinforcement in perpetuity. We see it too, at Europe’s southern external borders, where fences have only “succeeded” in temporarily pushing migrants and refugees towards longer and more dangerous routes such as across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
In Melilla for instance, triple fences were built six metres above ground, accompanied by sensors, thermal cameras, pepper-spray mechanisms, bright spotlights and an intricate mesh of steel cables meant to trap any intruder. This mass display of force “worked” for a while – until 2013 and 2014, when desperate migrants found new ways across. This February, 15 migrants died when they tried to swim around Ceuta’s fortified sea perimeter, dodging rubber bullets fired by the Spanish civil guards. Yet despite the violence, the migrants keep coming, triggering calls for further investments, on top of the €72m already spent on the fences since 2005.
If these barriers don’t work, then why are they built? The UK Immigration Minister unintentionally answers this question when he states that the aim of fencing is to send out a very clear message… [that] Britain is no soft touch when it comes to illegal immigration”. Indeed, fences are a message, not even for migrants who know what to expect at borders, but for a domestic audience and the media who fear foreign invasions and need to see action taken against them.
Moreover, these fenced borders create a whole ecosystem of sorts in which various sectors have a stake. Defence contractors, for instance, now market their fence technology or surveillance systems on to any setting, from Israel and Europe to Arizona. Around the fences of Ceuta and Melilla, complex networks have been created in which African and European border forces are drawn ever closer together, alongside other actors such as smugglers offering new routes, activists seeing barriers as ideal sites of protests, aid workers tending to those who come across and, of course, migrants themselves.
Whether it is looking for work or fleeing conflicts, migrants will always find ways over or around barriers. So instead of pretending that fence-building will solve anything, it is high time that we “unfence” our views of migration. On the one hand, this means seeking other, more humane responses to human movement, including orderly refugee resettlement. On the other, it means not seeing migration as a “problem” in need of a security response – but rather as a natural part of a world on the move.