May 23, 2018

The Diverse Nature of Border Management

Some countries facilitate crossing borders but others build a wall or fence

Moving from one country to another can be relatively easy, or it can be a complicated and challenging process. It all depends on the way in which different countries manage their border crossings and border control regimes.

Crossing the border from one country to another can be challenging in several ways. The documents required, which depend on a person’s country of origin and destination, are of primary importance. Natural boundaries can also complicate the crossing of national borders. Take, for example, the Pyrenees mountains that separate France and Spain, or a river, such as the Rio Grande that runs between the United States and Mexico (McDaniel et al. 2011). The chosen mode of transport may also pose a challenge—for example, rail travel can take longer if the neighbouring countries use different gauges of track, as is the case when travelling between China and Mongolia. The tracks in China are narrower than the ones in Mongolia, which means passengers must wait for the wheels to be changed (Smith 2017). Drivers crossing from China into Macau have to remember that using the Lótus Bridge between them involves a change from the right side of the road to the left, and vice versa when going the other way (Elledge 2016). Some travellers might not find this change disturbing at all, while it may cause confusion for others. The border between North and South Korea represents the most extreme example. Anyone wishing to cross between these countries faces a strip of land about 250 km long and 4 km wide that is heavily mined, fortified and covered with barbed wire and, for part of the way, electric fences (BBC News 2017b).

There are some countries that have made cross-border movement easier. Sweden and Denmark, for instance, have built the Oresund Strait Bridge, which facilitates movement between the countries (BBC News 2017a). The UK and France are connected by the Channel Tunnel, which also makes travelling from one country to the other quite easy (Smith 2015). Portugal and Spain have created an alternative border crossing opportunity, including an additional entertainment twist—a zipline that can take people from Sanlucar de Guadiana in Andalucia to Alcoutim (Daily Mail 2014). And of course, there is the Schengen Area. What better example of facilitating cross-border movement could there be than the case of the 26 countries (Schengen Visa Info 2017) that

do not carry out border checks at their internal borders (i.e. borders between two Schengen states); [and] carry out harmonised border controls, based on clearly defined criteria, at their external borders (i.e. borders between a Schengen state and a non-Schengen state). (European Commission 2015)

The above examples of factors that complicate or facilitate the crossing of borders are not the only ones, but they give a clear idea of the various problems and successes in the field. The Schengen Area and the free movement of citizens is undoubtedly a huge achievement, being an example of countries that have agreed to such broad cross-border cooperation. However, member states can still temporarily reintroduce border controls at their internal borders, for instance in the event of a serious threat to the public or internal security. According to the available information, the following countries have temporarily reintroduced border controls for a certain period: France, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. These temporary measures were due mostly to the security situation and the threats resulting from continuous significant secondary movements (European Commission 2018).

Since the Brexit referendum, the management of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has become part of the discussion. It was announced that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were against the re-establishment of any physical infrastructure and customs control along their common border. It is understandable why both countries wish to preserve the easiest possible movement between them (Rothwell 2018). The economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are very interconnected since huge amounts of goods and services cross the border on a daily basis. In addition, at least 30,000 people move from one country to the other every day (Morris 2017). Regardless of their common desire to not restore any hard border, it is not certain if avoiding physical infrastructure and customs control would ultimately be possible given that the UK also wants to leave the EU customs union and single market as part of Brexit (Bienkov and Payne 2018).

There are other countries where the construction of a physical border barrier is under discussion or has already been recently built. Greece has built a fence and electronic surveillance system along its border with Turkey. Hungary, Austria, Macedonia, Slovenia and Bulgaria have started the construction of fences or have announced plans to build them. Norway has also begun the construction of a steel fence at a remote Arctic border post with Russia. During his 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump strongly supported the idea to build an “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” along the US-Mexico border (Mohdin et al. 2016). What were the reasons behind this public thinking about the need to construct a physical barrier at the border? The US president has explained this by saying that a physical boundary could help protect the United States against illegal immigration (Shugerman 2017). Other countries have also spoken in favour of building a physical barrier in order to stop the flow of migrants (Mohdin et al. 2016).

Some countries have decided to use innovative elements for their border protection. For instance, the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board has recently purchased military drones in order to guard the country’s eastern border, survey the day-to-day situation there, and provide faster response to rescue missions and border incidents (The Baltic Times 2018). Drones can be moved from one place to another, upgraded as required and sold when no longer useful. They can also be flexible and effective assistants in case of difficult geographical obstacles. In addition, drones could help in search-and-rescue efforts and disaster relief or provide a flexible response to an ever-changing threat (Buss 2017). Helen Neider-Veerme, Head of the Office for Integrated Border Administration at the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board, has also explained the benefit of the use of drones by saying that

a drone is a good tool to aid in preventing and reacting to border incidents, which helps to get an overview of difficult to access places faster and more comfortably. Whether it is an illegal border crossing, a rescue incident on a border body of water or a landscape search, the information gathered with the help of a drone gives border guards additional possibilities for planning and executing their activities. (The Baltic Times 2018)

As the above examples demonstrate, several states have organised their border management—the regime of crossing or controlling their borders—very differently. There are neighbouring countries that cooperate closely in border management and those that want to eliminate all cross-border traffic. There are some who think that a physical barrier at the border provides security, and others who find that more innovative measures can help them achieve the goal.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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