Walls and borders
Soon after being inaugurated as President, Donald Trump signed an executive order to start building a wall between Mexico and USA. There is an existing fence along most of the 2,000 mile border with some 17,000 US Border Protection officers patrolling it. But is as much the anti-migrant, xenophobic attitude and intentions that led to this presidential order as the physical barrier itself. A brief history of border and city wall building does not provide comfortable bed fellows nor successful examples for the president of America.
Walls to keep people out (or in) are nothing new. The Roman Emperor Hadrian built a wall in AD120s between England and Scotland to keep the Scot Picts and Ancient Britons out. There never was a real threat from these groups. In 1940 Nazi Germany built a wall around part of Warsaw in Poland to keep Jews inside the ghetto, many to be exterminated in the Genocide. The ghetto was levelled in uprisings in1943. After the Second World War the Berlin Wall was built by communist leaders to stop east Berliners in the communist controlled half of the city crossing to liberal west Berlin. Berliners from both sides tore it down in 1989. In 1969 a fence was built between the Protestant and Catholic parts of Belfast in Northern Ireland to maintain peace. It didn’t work. Much more effective was dialogue between the different parties to find a peaceful solution.
On a more recent and local level, walls have been built by Mayors in Czech, Slovak and Romanian towns to keep Roma out of the ‘white’ parts of the conurbation. These have been dismantled soon after construction following NGO protests.
In many people’s minds, very stringent immigration controls act as virtual walls. ‘Fortress Europe’ is a term used by many to describe the sheer difficulty for a non-EEA/EU national in entering the European Union. The UK has also significantly increased the bureaucratic burden, and for many limited the possibility, for someone from a non-EU state entering the country.
It was not always so. Before the First World War there were no walls or fences (discounting Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, of course). In fact, believe it or not, there were no borders. No visas. No passport controls.
The Austrian author and playwright Stefan Zweig (1881 - 1942) makes this observation:
“Before 1914 the earth belonged to the entire human race. Everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked. No permits or visas were necessary, and I am always enchanted by the amazement of young people when I tell them that before 1914 I travelled to India and America without a passport. Indeed, I had never set eyes on a passport. You boarded your means of transport and got off it again, without asking or being asked any questions; you didn’t have to fill in a single one of the hundred forms required today. No permits, no visas, nothing to give you trouble; the borders that today, thanks to the pathological distrust felt by everyone for everyone else, are a tangled fence of red tape were then nothing but symbolic lines on the map, and you crossed them as unthinkingly as you can cross the meridian in Greenwich. It was not until after the war that National Socialism began destroying the world, and the first visible symptom of that intellectual epidemic of the present century was xenophobia—hatred or at least fear of foreigners. People were defending themselves against foreigners everywhere; they were kept out of everywhere. All the humiliations previously devised solely for criminals were now inflicted on every traveller before and during a journey. You had to be photographed from right and left, in profile and full face, hair cut short enough to show your ears; you had to have fingerprints taken—first just your thumbs, then all ten digits; you had to be able to show certificates—of general health and inoculations—papers issued by the police certifying that you had no criminal record; you had to be able to produce documentary proof of recommendations and invitations, with addresses of relatives; you had to have other documents guaranteeing that you were of good moral and financial repute; you had to fill in and sign forms in triplicate or quadruplicate, and if just one of this great stack of pieces of paper was missing you were done for.”
Can we return to the times of less xenophobia and more trust in people? It would take very strong political will and leadership, but it is possible if we all forget ‘wall mentality’.
Alan Anstead, UKREN Coordinator
This article first appeared on Migrants' Rights Network