International Land Borders, Hard and Soft

Map of the variety of international land borders

Map of the variety of international land bordersOn the standard world political map, all boundaries between sovereign states are the same, simple lines separating one country from another. In actuality, borders vary tremendously. The four-kilometer-wide “demilitarized zone”— sandwiched between two hyper-militarized zones—that splits North from South Koreas does not even remotely resemble the stroll-over border between Germany and France. Such border disparities have increased in recent decades. Europe has seen a massive softening of borders; first the Iron Curtain dissolved, then the Schengen Agreement allowed control-free movement across most state lines. In the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, and elsewhere, borders have hardened in the same period, marked by the massive construction of “separation barriers.” Some of these barricades are designed to prevent the infiltration of militants; others to staunch the movement of immigrants.

GeoCurrents will examine recently fortified borders over the next week or so. Today’s post focuses on the global distribution of exceptional borders, hard and soft. The map depicts the extremes of free movement and fortification. In blue are the international boundaries within the Schengen area, with lighter blue showing Schengenland’s planned expansion to encompass Romania and Bulgaria. Red shows barricaded borders, existing and under construction. Serious proposals for new barriers are depicted in orange.

The map is not comprehensive. Maritime borders are ignored, as are land boundaries too small to be seen on a map of this scale. Heavily fortified borders thus excluded include those separating Israel from Lebanon, Gaza from Egypt, Northern Cyprus from the rest of the island,* and the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco. Hard barriers within sovereign states, such as that between Hong Kong and China proper, are also excluded, as are those that do not correspond with internationally recognized boundaries, such as the “Moroccan Wall” in Western Sahara. I have also excluded the barrier between South Africa and Mozambique, as it is slated for demolition.

It quite possible that other hard borders, existing and proposed, have not been given their due. The map’s source material is limited to the Wikipedia article entitled “Separation Barrier”; the article is informative, but is marred by discrepancies between its text and its table. The only Russian entry in the impressive table listing “current barriers” is the proposed divide between Russia and Chechnya, excluded from the GeoCurrents map because it is internal to the Russian state. Yet the article notes the existence of “a security barrier … on the border of Russia with Norway, Finland, China, Mongolia and North Korea.” No other information is provided; the linked Wikipedia article is in Russian, hence inaccessible to me. Combining the two sources, I have mapped these Russian borders as “hard.”

The mapping of “soft borders” is also tentative. The GeoCurrents map merely follows the internal boundaries within the Schengen area, noting as well planned expansions f the zone. Yet other international boundaries also have certain soft features. Until recently, one was very open; the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland long formed a “common travel area” with “minimal or non-existent border controls.” Such openness, however, is evidently vanishing. As reported in a 2007 Sunday Times article:

The free movement of people between Ireland and Britain has survived centuries of tension and even terrorism, but that tradition is about to end with the severing of a special relationship between the two countries because of tighter security procedures. Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that the Common Travel Area – which was created between the Republic of Ireland and the UK after independence – is to be dismantled with the construction of an electronic border control system by Britain by 2009. Mr Ahern said that it was now only sensible for the Republic to follow Britain’s example and introduce similar security.

As always, I welcome comments on the accuracy of the map. Subsequent posts will examine in detail specific barricaded borders, beginning with that separating Iran from Pakistan. This barrier divides not only two different countries, but also a single major ethnic group, the Baloch.

*Northern Cyprus, moreover, is not an internationally recognized state, as it receives recognition only from Turkey

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Map of Landlocked Countries

Many students are surprised at how few of the world’s sovereign states are landlocked, without access to the sea. The map above depicts the landlocked realm, leaving out the micro-states that cannot be seen at this scale of resolution. Luxemburg is visible on the map – although just barely – but Andorra, San Marino, and Lichtenstein are not. Lichtenstein is one of the world’s two double-landlocked counties, which are bordered only by sovereign states that are themselves landlocked. The other country in this category is Uzbekistan, and is thus depicted as such on the map.

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The World’s Shortest Border

Fans of geo-trivia may be interested in locating the world’s shortest land border between sovereign states. A Fun Trivia posting on the subject – which begins by ruling out Monaco, Andorra, the Vatican, and Gibraltar – selects the two kilometers separating Botswana and Zambia. But if one counts exclaves, a much shorter border can be found: the 85-meter line separating Morocco from Spain’s outpost of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera. “Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera” is a long name for a small place. This slender peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean was an island until 1934, when a massive storm deposited a sandy isthmus connecting it to the African mainland. Upon Morocco’s independence in 1956, that thin neck of sand became an international border.

Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera is one of three Spanish garrisoned rock fortresses lying just off the Moroccan coast, formally known as plazas de soberanía, or “places of sovereignty.” The three Islas Chafarinas cover 128 acres (52 hectares), the three islets of Peñón de Alhucemas total 11 acres (4.6 hectares), and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera covers all of 4.7 acres (1.9 hectares). Such garrisons once served an important function. Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, for example, was besieged by Morocco in 1680, 1701, 1755, 1781 and 1790. Today, troop strengths at these outposts range from a few dozen to 190.

The most recent military dispute between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s exclaves occurred in 2002. In that year, Moroccan forces occupied Isla Perejil, an unoccupied speck near Ceuta claimed by Spain. Spain’s vehement objection was supported by all members of the EU except France and Portugal; Algeria, which has a long-running dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara, also offered support. Spain responded with a commando raid, which took the island with no resistance. Mediation by the United States led to a Spanish pullout and subsequent stalemate. Both countries currently claim and monitor the island, but it remains deserted.

The final Spanish land claim in the vicinity is Isla de Alborán, which lies fifty kilometers off the Moroccan coast. Unlike the other islands discussed in this post, Isla de Alborán is not formally claimed by Morocco, and is not officially a “place of sovereignty.” Instead, it is administered by the Spanish city of Almería, specifically – according to the Wikipedia – as part of its fish market district. It does contain a small naval garrison.

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Neutral Zones at the Boundaries Dividing Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco

The Wikipedia maps of Ceuta and Melilla show a double boundary separating Spanish from Moroccan territory, with a neutral zone in between. Such a depiction is unusual: borders between political entities are conventionally conceptualized as one-dimensional lines, with length but no breadth. One can, for example, easily imagine standing with one foot in Canada and one in the United States.

Such a conception of political boundaries is a relatively recent development. In much of the world, borders between states were traditionally treated as transitional zones rather than as stark lines of demarcation. Even in the twentieth century, stalled border negotiations occasionally resulted in the formal delineation of interstitial areas between sovereign states. The world’s last such “neutral zone,” a parallelogram of desert sandwiched between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, was not erased from the world map until 1991. The two countries had agreed to split the region ten years earlier, but as they never informed the United Nations of their accord, the zone retained its international standing. A decade earlier, another neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had been divided and annexed by the two countries.

Even where they are conceptualized as a razor-thin line, moreover, many boundaries are still constructed in depth, especially those separating hostile countries. The prime example is the four-kilometer-wide “demilitarized zone” dividing North Korea from South Korea – perhaps the world’s most heavily militarized area. The strips of land around Melilla and Ceuta once had military functions too, but today they serve mostly to deter illegal immigration.

As recently as the 1990s, Melilla and Morocco were separated by little more than rolls of barbed wire along an undeveloped ribbon of land. Residents of Morocco and neighboring countries learned that crossing this lightly defended frontier was an easy way to gain entry into the EU. In 1999, with European resistance to immigration mounting, the boundary was strengthened with additional fencing.

The new barrier did not prove adequate to the job. Desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa increasingly tried to storm the fence in human waves. Attempts peaked on September 27, 2005, when, as reported by the Associated Press, “some 1,000 men tried to clamber over the fences in twin assaults on Melilla’s crescent-shaped perimeter. About 300 made it in.” (In the previous two weeks, crowds had rushed the frontier five times; some 700 had succeeded in climbing over.) Two days later, a similar action occurred at Ceuta’s border. Spanish troops fired on the would-be immigrants with rubber bullets; Moroccan forces evidently used live ammunition. As many as eighteen people were killed, and more than fifty were injured.

Spain responded to these incursions by again reinforcing the border. As a recent article in The Guardian reported:

The city [of Melilla] erected an intimidating new barrier – two parallel 4m wire fences, topped with razor wire and with a tarmac strip running between patrolled by the Spanish Guardia Civil, all of it monitored by 106 video cameras, infrared surveillance, a microphone cable and helicopters. In Melilla, a man who had worked on the fence told me he would arrive at work in the morning to find his ladder covered in blood, where migrants had tried to use it to climb into the city and had become victims of the razor wire.”

Spanish forces subsequently cleared out camps of sub-Saharan migrants that had been established in the buffer zone between the outer security fence and the town. Both Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières accused Spain of dumping more than 500 of these prospective migrants into an uninhabited portion of the Sahara.

Separation barriers designed primarily to prevent illegal immigration are becoming an increasingly common feature of the world’s borderlands. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, migration-deterring barricades exist now or are being built between Botswana and Zimbabwe, Brunei and Malaysia, China and North Korea, Egypt and Gaza, India and Bangladesh, South Africa and Mozambique, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, United Arab Emirates and Oman, the United States and Mexico, and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

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China’s Troubled Korean Border Zone

The Korean language extends well beyond North Korea’s boundary into Manchuria in northeastern China. Roughly two million Koreans live in China, mostly in the border zone. Almost half of them reside in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where Korean cultural institutions receive official support. Although the area was part of several historical Korean kingdoms, its current Korean population stems largely from northward migration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this period, Korea was falling under Japanese domination, while southeastern Manchuria beckoned as a lightly populated area of pioneer farming.

China has long had a number of concerns about its Korean-populated area. It worries that a united Korea might someday claim the region as part of its national patrimony, owing both to historical patterns of rule and to the ethnic background of its inhabitants. More immediately, it fears that a collapse of North Korea could generate a massive northward surge of desperate refugees across its border, where they would seek shelter in Korean-speaking communities. The border zone is already a place of tension and intrigue. Hungry North Koreans have been slipping into China for years, causing headaches for Chinese authorities and complicating already tense relations among Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul. Fewer people cross in the opposite direction, a far more perilous undertaking, but it does occur. In early June 2010, North Korean border guards shot and killed three Chinese citizens who were trying to cross the border, claiming that they were either seeking to conduct illegal trade or to spy for South Korea.

Concerned about the security of its Korean border zone, China has sought to incorporate its Korean-speaking minority into its larger national community while continuing to respect its basic cultural rights. This endeavor has proved relatively successful. Enrollment in Korean schools is rapidly declining, as education in Mandarin Chinese is increasingly desired, mostly for its economic advantages. Han Chinese and other non-Koreans have also moved into the Korean zone in large numbers, just as large numbers of Korean Chinese – almost half of a million in 2009 – have moved to South Korea. As a result, the Korean proportion of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture has dropped from almost two-thirds in the early 1950s to about a third at present.

By all indications, China’s Korean community seems reasonably satisfied with its political situation, showing few signs of wanting to separate from China. But general strains between Korea and China still focus on the border region, many of which concern historical representation (to be explored in tomorrow’s post). One particular flashpoint is Mount Baekdu, located on the China-North Korea border. Widely viewed as the place of origin of the Korean people, Baekdu is one of Korea’s three most important sacred mountains. Many South Koreans believe that the entire volcanic peak is rightfully Korean territory, arguing that its northern slope was illegitimately ceded to China by the northern regime during the Korean War. In 2007, South Korean athletes at the Asian Winter Games infuriated Chinese officials by holding up signs proclaiming Korean sovereignty over the entire peak. South Korean nationalists are angered by China’s development of a tourism industry on its side of the mountain, as well as by its use of the term Changbai Mountain, which some see as an attempt to pry away a key natural symbol of Korean identity.

Professor Guofan Shao of Purdue University has recently determined, through Google Earth analysis, that North Korea is massively logging its slopes of Mount Baekdu, despite its status as a Biosphere Reserve. Such activities are not surprising, as a largely deforested North Korea faces severe lumber shortages. But the situation is tragic: according to some experts, “Mount Paekdu [Baekdu] along with adjacent areas in China possesses the world’s highest plant diversity found in a cool, temperate zone.”

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