Migration Is Rising, but So Do Border Barriers

One such factor determining the effectiveness of a border barrier is how it is constructed — which differs greatly in complexity and enforcement, as a study by policy researchers Victoria Vernon and Klaus Zimmermann documents: “Among the most serious borders is Kuwait/Iraq, made of electrified fencing and razor wire, braced by a 4.6-meter-wide and 4.6-meter-deep [15-foot-wide and -deep] trench, complete with a 3-meter-high dirt berm, and guarded by hundreds of soldiers, several patrol boats, and helicopters.”

Among relatively porous borders are fences between Malaysia/Thailand, and India/Bangladesh. Both are lightly patrolled and monitored, and thus not effective deterrents for migrants and smugglers who often use fake documents and bribes to cross between the two countries,” Vernon and Zimmermann continue.

Migration, Security: Walls Not Universally Effective’
Scientific studies are divided on whether walls can prevent irregular migration. “There’s no scientific consensus, which means that walls are not universally effective at deterring immigration,” Sergi Pardos-Prado, a political scientist at the University of Glasgow, wrote to DW in an email.

Sometimes migration finds alternative routes ­— sea or alternative, indirect land connections. Walls are slow and expensive constructions, sometimes you prevent access in a specific area but you incentivize access in a different area still under construction or less robust.

It is rare to find a perfect, massive, solid, impenetrable block covering the whole length of the border.”

Beyond preventing migration, another reason to build walls are concerns around security, such as stopping terrorism. But recent research efforts led by Pardos-Prado show that the construction of border barriers can actually increase the probability for terror attacks rather than prevent them — based on two conditions.

In case studies of the Saudi-Iraqi wall and the Israel-Egypt wall, the researchers traced how attitudes of people toward the other country significantly deteriorated after a wall was built. “The erection of the wall signals and intensifies conflict, even beyond the conflictual conditions that were already latent before the erection of the wall,” said Pardos-Prado.

There is also a second condition for border walls to backfire: The presence of a large refugee group coming from countries where transnational terrorist organizations are located. This provides terrorists breeding ground for recruits, the researchers’ theory goes.

This means that if the refugee group size is large but they do not come from countries with terrorism, we don’t observe the backfiring effect,” Pardos-Prado said.

The researchers’ analysis suggests that “this backfiring effect lasts, on average, between four and 11 years after the start of the construction of the wall.”

Border Walls Also Hit Economy — More Than Once
Unwanted side effects can also be witnessed in the economic sector: While border barriers can reduce illegal trade like drug trafficking and smuggling, they are likely to curb legal trade as well.

Irrespective of the intended purpose of the wall, the legal trade of countries with a wall built between them plummeted by up to 31 percent, according to a study by the universities of Washington and Chicago that analyzed more than 50 barriers around the world.

Moreover, wall construction not only reduces trade, but it also brings additional costs: Beyond the bill for actual border construction, costs for companies to conduct legal trade and costs for civilians legally crossing borders are likely to increase as well.

The economic question about the walls and fences is: do the benefits exceed the costs?” wrote economist Victoria Vernon in an email to DW

Or in other words: Is a wall worth it if it prevents 40,000 people from working in the US — when the costs of achieving it include $3 billion to build the wall, many more billions to maintain it, the hundreds of people who die crossing the border, criminal justice resources to patrol the border, and potential economic benefits of Mexican labor that US citizens are not receiving because migrant workers are not coming?” 

Alternatives to Border Barriers
But if border walls and fences are no surefire measure for tackling irregular migration, damping down illegal trade and combatting terrorism — then what is?

Economic literature overwhelmingly suggests that policies of more open borders, with less restrictive migration and trade, benefit domestic citizens more than walls,” according to Vernon and Zimmermann.

Economic policies are also more effective than walls in dealing with illegal trade and trafficking, while diplomacy is more effective than walls in addressing security,” they point out in their study.

Walls and fences can be a short-term instrument,” economist Klaus Zimmermann wrote in an email to DW. But most social scientists working in the migration field “think that it is not a reasonable instrument,” he added.

Border barriers are “mostly a political showcase for policymakers to impress voters in the short term,” Zimmerman concluded.

Gianna-Carina Grün is head of Data-Driven Journalism at DW.Waleed Al-Bast, Emad Ghanim, Abdo Al-Mikhlafy, Yalda Zarbakhch, Daniel Bellut, Florian Meyer and Marina Baranovska contributed to this report. For data and methodology behind this analysis, see this GitHub repository.This article is published courtesy of Deutsche Welle (DW).