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Home » Borders, Featured, Geopolitics, World

International Land Borders, Hard and Soft

Submitted by on May 11, 2011 – 9:51 pm 6 Comments |  
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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  • Keith Macgowan

    I speak no Russian either, but based on some shaky automated translations, I think the Wikipedia article is referring to the same Soviet era barbed wire fencing as in this article, with the addition of some kind of electronic alarm system:

    In Asia, Russia certainly seems to be trying to clamp down on border controls, but given the scale of the area it’s hard to picture them putting in place a true barrier wall, such as the Greece-Turkey one recently announced. A couple of interesting recent articles:

  • I don’t believe the Russia-Finland border has any physical wall or other barrier with the possible exception of its southernmost portions. Even during the USSR period, the isolation of the most of the border made a physical barrier unnecessary.

  • Jim Wilson

    Given the recent scuffle over North African immigrants, it seems the French want to reestablish some border controls on their border with Schengen-partner Italy.

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    According to the Russian Wikipedia article you link, most of Russia’s border with Finland is protected with one or the other of two systems they’ve used since the Soviet times (the older system called “gardina” and the newer system “gobi”). It’s not a wall per se, but a “wall” of wires with electro-magnetic sensors. There’s a picture of such a system here:

    According to the same article, such systems cover the borders of Russia with Norway, Finland, Poland (near Kaliningrad), Mongolia, China and Korea. There no such systems on Russia’s border with Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus; they were never built. On the border of Lithuania and Poland, the system was not destroyed officially even after the two countries entered the Schengen in 2007, but people cut the wires and cross freely. It has even become a tourist attraction of sorts, for Russians and foreigners alike.

    On the border of Belarus and Poland the system is still there but it is not clear if it is fed by electricity and is active.

    In Ukraine on the border with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, wire systems are used “in a passive mode” (whatever that means).

    If you’d like more of that article translated, let me know.

  • Jim Wilson makes an important point about the future of Schengenland, which no longer seems as secure as it recently did. Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for the summarizing the Russian Wikipedia article. There are obviously different degrees of “hardness” to such borders!

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    With respect to the Russian borders, at least during Soviet times, they relied not only on electrical wires and such, but also on maintaining “near the border” closed areas, where only the military and the locals were allowed. One needed a special permit to travel to town in such areas. We were once on a family vacation in that part of Ukraine that is close to the Romanian border, and we happened to need medicine that was only available from a pharmacy in a close-by “big town”, which was in the “near the border area”. It cost my father an arm and a leg to get permit to travel there for just half-an-hour to pick the medicine… and a stranger would be most conspicuous in a place like that, with the locals always on the look for “the enemy”…