United States President Donald Trump’s plans to build a “great, great wall” along the United States’ 3,200 kilometer long border with Mexico to keep out what he calls “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists” is hardly a new idea. Several other countries, many motivated by Islamophobia, have fenced their borders with their neighbors to keep out illegal migrants, terrorists, and criminals.
Trump would do well to learn from the experience of these countries. Not only are their fences not particularly effective but also, constructing and managing them are enormously expensive in terms of money and human lives.
Take India, for instance, which has border fences with two of its neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The fence along its border with Bangladesh is aimed primarily at keeping Bangladeshi migrants from entering India. The decision to build a fence to keep them out was made in the 1980s when the issue of Bangladeshi migration turned politically explosive in the northeast Indian state of Assam.
A powerful mass agitation and armed insurgency in Assam drew attention to the impact of migration on the state’s demography, identity, voting patterns, employment, etc. And in a bid to placate Assamese passions on the subject, the Indian government agreed to put in place a slew of measures, including the construction of a fence to keep out “illegal migrants.”
India and Bangladesh share a 4,097 km long porous border, which snakes through plains, rivers, hills, and paddy fields. This borderland is densely populated; the people inhabiting it have numerous cross-border connections, some going back several centuries and others new.
An eight-foot-high fence of barbed wire, electrified in some stretches, runs along roughly 70 percent of this border. It is an intimidating structure but it hasn’t deterred Bangladeshi migrants anxious to cross into India to visit relatives or in search of livelihood security from making the perilous journey. Smugglers, drug couriers, human traffickers, and cattle rustlers from both sides of the border too continue to cross the border to ply their trade, often with the connivance of Indian and Bangladeshi border guards.
“Border fences rarely work to stop migration,” observes Reece Jones, associate professor at the University of Hawaii and author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. Most borders, he points out “are too long and too lightly guarded to have an impact on people moving through that space.”
The fence is not “water-tight,” a Bangladeshi lawyer based in Khulna, an important source of out-migration, told The Diplomat. Where the border runs through rivers (roughly 1,116 km of the border is riverine), for instance, there is no fence. Some 44 km of Assam’s boundary with Bangladesh passes through the Brahmaputra River, a river which changes course every year. Construction of a permanent fence along this stretch has not been possible here and although patrol boats are deployed, “crossings are harder to monitor here,” allowing people to slip across between the two countries.
Besides, the fence has “several crossing points where people with fake documents or bribes can cross the border,” says Jones. Thus while a border fence “changes [population] movement patterns, it does not stop movement itself,” he points out.
As for its efficacy in keeping out terrorists from India, Jones says that the India-Bangladesh fence “likely has no impact.” A terrorist, he points out, “typically has the funds to pay for fake documents and simply cross the border at checkpoints or travel with valid documents.”
Not only is the fence “largely ineffective” in keeping out migrants and criminals, but also much violence is unleashed to enforce it. Several people who have attempted to make their way through it have been brutally gunned down by border guards.
The killing of Feleni, a 15-year-old Bangladeshi girl in 2011, when she was returning home to Bangladesh, by India’s Border Security Force evoked outrage worldwide. According to a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, between 2001 and 2010 BSF personnel gunned down an estimated 900 Bangladeshis as they attempted to cross the border.
“Many of these victims of the violence are people who go near the border fence to cultivate their lands nearby,” the Bangladeshi lawyer said. Several of those killed were returning home after spending a few days with kin living on the other side.
Just as disturbing is the impact of the fence on families and communities. In the past people could visit their relatives across the border easily. But with the fence coming up “they have to pay smugglers [to cross the border] and risk their lives with the BSF,” Jones says.
Why, then, are fences so popular with governments especially those that thrive on narrow nationalist, even xenophobic appeals?
Border fences are “nationalist symbols,” points out Jones. They represent “the idea of excluding another population” — Muslim Bangladeshis, in the case of the India-Bangladesh fence, or Mexicans in the case with Trump’s planned wall.
They make a government “look tough, like it is taking strong action to protect its people from so-called ‘illegals’ and ‘outsiders,’” the lawyer observed. According to Jones, what fences do in effect is to “make the lives of migrants more precarious within India or the United States.” Indeed contrary to keeping out migrants, fences “often cause people to stay for longer periods of time, in effect changing temporary labor migrants into permanent undocumented residents.”
India’s fence-building has had negative impact on its otherwise warm relations with Bangladesh. It has enhanced India’s image as a bullying big brother in the eyes of the Bangladeshi people. The fence-building is seen as a step that is far from friendly. On the contrary, the fence is viewed as a symbol of the distrust that underlies mutual perceptions. It has been widely criticized in Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia. As an editorial in the South Asian newsmagazine Himal pointed out in 2008, the fence “flies in the face of the historical movement of peoples of South Asia across the landscape, and creates a rigid frontier that is incongruous with both our past and present.”
In recent years, India has been reaching out to its neighbors, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Myanmar with plans to enable seamless travel between these countries with a view to boosting interaction, trade, and cooperation among the peoples of this region. Proposals to build transnational roads and rails linking them are in the works.The fence goes against the spirit and substance of this effort toward greater regional cooperation.
In the long term, the fence is only going to worsen problems facing the region in general and Bangladesh in particular. Bangladesh is a low-lying country. A fifth of Bangladesh’s territory is likely to go under water if sea levels rise by one meter. This is expected to happen by the end of this century.
There is concern over the fate of Bangladesh’s population. India surrounds the country on three sides and the fence is boxing its people in. Some of the most vulnerable coastal districts in Bangladesh are Khulna, Satkhira, and Bagerhat, which lie along India’s border. Where will the people go when their homes and crops go under water?
India cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the problem. Not only would that approach be inhumane but also, the impact of rising sea level on India could be as devastating as it is predicted to be on Bangladesh. Indeed, some studies have listed India along with Bangladesh as among the countries at “extreme risk” from climate change.
Rather than distance itself from Bangladesh on the climate change issue, India should cooperate with it. Taking down the fence is an important first step that Delhi must take. But dismantling walls is more difficult than building them. It requires political will and a change in mindsets. Most of all, it requires recognizing that the India-Bangladesh fence has brought little security to the people of these countries. Rather it is a source of insecurity.
The question is whether Trump will understand the writing on the wall?
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.