The World of Border Walls

Collage of Border fences Source:

In the age of globalization and interconnectedness, walls have an innate drama to them, especially if they are built on borders of countries. Walls then become the subject of political discourse, arguments, even confrontations not only in the given country, but sometimes on the international political scene, as well. Still, with the advent of illegal migration, more and more countries have chosen to erect them.

Mixed Records from Israel to India

The primary purpose of such border walls is to prevent unauthorized crossings or mixed movements of migrants and asylum seekers, with other rationale being preventing the smuggling of goods and deterring terrorism or military invasion.

In an apparent irony, while the world has never been more globalized, the emergence of walls between nation states and the accompanying appetite for more of them has never been so high.

According to a 2020 analysis, Israel has more border walls than any country in the world (six), followed by Morocco, Iran and India (three each), and South Africa, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Hungary and Lithuania (two each). India’s walls have a total length of 6 540 km (including 4 096 km along its border with Bangladesh) and cover 43 percent of its external borders. The many (non-continuous) sections of the US-Mexico border wall amount to over 1 000 kilometers.

In 2022, there were reportedly 74 border walls across the world, up from just six in 1989, a year notable because it saw the destruction of the Cold War’s iconic wall in Berlin. Perhaps wall-building is a direct result of globalization and the insecurities and inequalities it has produced. Border walls have rapidly become seen as the modern normalized solution because as a report on the subject describes geopolitical tensions and remedies to the instability generated by an unbalanced international system.

EU’s Divide on the Subject

In recent years some member states have asked the European Commission to permit them to use EU funds to build border fences in order to prevent irregular migration in the wake of growing political pressure and tensions at the EU’s external border. In 2021, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, emphasized the “longstanding view in the European Commission and in the European Parliament that there will be no funding of barbed wire and walls,” in opposition to such demands from the Commission.

Meanwhile, the European Union is listed as having paid €250 million for barbed-wire fences surrounding the Spanish enclave city of Ceuta, having reportedly funded the majority of the first barrier constructed there between 1995 and 2000. In addition, the EU has controversially funded the Libyan coastguard as a kind of maritime wall and supported the effective externalization of its borders by providing support to non-member states, such as by paying for watchtowers along the wall between Turkey and Iran.

Border fences have also increased rapidly within the EU/Schengen area. As of right now, there are 19. The total length of fences built along the external and internal borders of the EU increased from 315 km to 2 048 km just between 2014 and 2022 (see table). This time frame aligns with a period of heightened politicization and securitization of immigration, as well as an increase in irregular migration resulting from the migration crisis that peaked in Europe in 2015–16.

Overview of fences at the borders of EU/Schengen countries Source: European Parliament (2022) Walls and fences at EU borders. Briefing
Overview of fences at the borders of EU/Schengen countries Source: European Parliament (2022) Walls and fences at EU borders. Briefing


Although border walls and fences are not expressly forbidden by EU law, they must follow the Schengen Borders Code, EU funding regulations on borders and migration, fundamental rights obligations, and EU law.

In response to the current surge in wall construction, scholarly discussions have focused on two questions: “Why is this happening now?” and “What are the most immediate effects?” In their books authors like Wendy Brown (Walled States, Waning Sovereignty) and Elisabeth Vallet (Borders, Fences and Walls: State of Insecurity?) argue that walls constructed after 9/11 are not like those constructed in the past, which were frequently constructed by nation states to assert their territorial sovereignty and deter foreign invasion. Rather, the new walls are primarily constructed in response to the unchecked movement of people and non-state actors.

‘Fortressing’ Policies in the EU

The EU and its member states have been building “fortress Europe” for decades, limiting the movement of people from third countries, supposedly to allow them freedom inside their borders. The above slogan is over two decades old. It is related to the past, when migration was primarily an economic issue rather than a socio-political one. Right-wing parties on the continent have benefited from having diabolized the migration phenomenon, which has now gradually changed to pose threats to European jobs, European sovereignty, and—most importantly—European security.

In response to member states’ continued requests for assistance in financing their border fences, European leaders decided to “immediately mobilize substantial EU funds and means” for border guards and surveillance equipment (cameras, drones, watchtowers, vehicles, etc.) at a summit of the EU Council in February 2023. “Borders must be managed […] We will act to strengthen our external borders,” stated Commission President Ursula von de Leyen in this passage.

Although the EU has not yet provided funds for member states to actually construct walls, the bloc’s position seems to be “hardening.”

A number of member states, including Hungary, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Greece, signed a letter in favor of stricter border controls prior to the summit in February, last year. This letter was a follow-up to one from October 2021, in which 12 member states requested that the European Commission allow EU funds to be used to finance border walls.

Human and Economic Costs of the Walls

The economic cost has a human component as well. In fact, there is a documented relationship between the number of people who perish trying to cross borders and the fortification of those borders. “The world’s deadliest migratory route” refers to the central Mediterranean region. The route was responsible for over 22 000 of the 28 000 migrant deaths and disappearances reported throughout the Mediterranean between January 2014 and June 2023.

The Mediterranean Sea has turned into a “dead sea,” according to Nicolas Lambert, a cartographer, who charts the tragedies that befall migrants. Even though there has been a decrease in the overall number of crossing attempts, the death toll keeps rising.

The majority of border walls in the world have been built in the last 20 years, and more are either planned or currently being built. Most of these walls—especially the more recent ones—are made to restrict people’s movement.

A “Border Industrial Complex” as a whole is driving and benefiting from this wall-building boom, according to some observers. This industry has perpetuated a narrative that frames border security issues, including migration and other political and/or humanitarian challenges.

At best, border walls could be perceived as tools that don’t successfully address the underlying cause of the issue they are meant to resolve. Therefore, research from around the world indicates that both the direct and indirect costs of building border walls exceed the benefits, especially with regard to mixed migration. Tunnels, drones, ladders, ramps, document forgery, corruption—there are an increasing number of ways to get around the walls.

European migration policy externalizes European borders to states in the southern Mediterranean and presents migration as a security threat. Both those objectives and the EU’s values-based foreign policy are undercut by the current migration policy.


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