Global Challenges
Issue no. 4 | October 2018
Epidemia of Walls in an (Un)free World
Global Challenges
Issue no. 4 | October 2018
Epidemia of Walls in an (Un)free World | Article 1

A Contagious Craze for Walls

Reading time: 2 min

Walls are being erected across the world in ever-increasing numbers. Of course, History shows that countries, cities and communities have always sought to shield themselves from the Other. However, the contemporary craze for walls, rooted in the desire to partition people and work and to globalise everything else, brings with it dangers of an unprecedented and potentially explosive nature.

The moment when the Berlin Wall was dismantled is long behind us, together with the prophecies of the “End of History” it inspired. To be sure, the fall of the Soviet empire and the triumph of free market ideology have broken down barriers in the world. China and Vietnam are open; apartheid has been abolished; Europe has introduced free movement of people among its members. However, this trend soon reached its limits. North Korea has remained a hermit kingdom, while Israel, in the absence of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, has walled itself off in turn. Above all, the United States and the European Union have – after 9/11 and the electoral rise of political identitarianism – implemented an increasingly restrictive migration policy. Moreover, the planet’s immurement is no longer directed solely at protecting the sovereignty or security of the Nation State. It is also segmenting societies themselves, with a proliferation of gated communities in large urban centres, surrounded by fences and policed by private security companies.


Not everything about this evolution is new. After all, China had its Great Wall, and the Roman Empire tried its hand at building walls, too. The cities of the Middle Ages and the modern era were fortified, and these defensive measures were only belatedly demolished, without, moreover, always eliminating the levies at the gate. Capitalism has securitised the earth, generally resulting in its enclosure, except in countries of “common” pasture. In England, enclosures were systematised in the 18th century. And the bourgeoisie of the 19th were happy to enclose the parks on their properties with fine-looking stone walls.

It may even be the case that today’s immurement is subconsciously reliving the old myth according to which Alexander the Great enclosed the peoples of Gog and Magog – the nations of the Antichrist and the ten tribes of Israel – behind an insurmountable wall somewhere between the Caucasus and the northern Himalaya, so as to prevent them from breaking out into the world. Subsequently, this ancient fable came to be merged with biblical prophecies (Ezek. 38:16 and Rev. 20:7–8). It is utopian to imagine that the majority of humanity will remain on the threshold of the globalisation boutique without breaking down the door and shattering the windows In this vein, the dangerous peoples in Western eyes have been successively the Scythes, the Mongols (supposedly Tartars), the Ottomans (so-called Turks), and the Jews, often intermingled in the popular imagination and united by a common desire to assail the ecclesia, acclaiming the Antichrist. Our age continues to dwell on ancient millenarian fears, of which the “yellow peril” – and today the Muslim peril – are an avatar.


Nonetheless, the current craze for walls entails three unprecedented dangers. It introduces a potentially explosive disconnect between, on the one hand, a fanatical integration of the planet in the spheres of finance, trade, technology, sport, leisure and material or spiritual culture, and, on the other, the increasingly coercive, even militarised, partitioning of the international labour force and the movement of persons. It is utopian to imagine that the majority of humanity will remain on the threshold of the globalisation boutique – a threshold it is forbidden to cross – without breaking down the door and shattering the windows.

Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border. 25 August 2015.
By Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Secondly, containment of the barbarians is corrupting from within the city it claims to be protecting. It brings forth exceptional legal regimes at the expense of foreigners, who are equated to enemies. Progressively, these laws are extended to citizens themselves, implementing states of emergency which become States of emergency, and trivialising the abjection of the State, which in turn is institutionalised into States of abjection. In the name of the war on terror and illegal immigration, civil liberties are increasingly under threat in Western countries; the right of asylum and the law of the sea have been trampled over; each year, the European Union’s refoulement policy causes more deaths in the Mediterranean and the Sahara than three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland; the United States separates children from their parents while awaiting the construction of the anti-Latino wall on its Mexican border; Israel has abandoned all restraint in containing the Palestinians or expelling Africans. Yet, this State of abjection has been anointed by universal suffrage and can lay claim to democratic legitimacy. With and behind the walls, “voluntary servitude” flourishes.

Finally, the world’s immurement is breaking apart societies from within. It is privatising public space and the city itself. It is outsourcing the borders of the most powerful states to other dependent states, as is the case with the European Union in the Sahel, tearing their sovereignty apart. It is using biometrics which makes it invisible, and its intangibility is segmenting the city ad infinitum. In today’s Orwellian China, in comparison to which Maoist totalitarianism seems like a leaky sieve, every escalator, every intersection, every square, monitored electronically, is a wall that identifies you as a good or bad citizen and can prevent you from boarding a plane or a train. There is a real danger that the peddlers of fear and biometrics will soon apply this recipe to liberal democracies. Walls of the world, unite!

By Jean-François Bayart
Professor of Anthropology and Sociology
Yves Oltramare Chair Religion and Politics in the Contemporary World
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: A Palestinian man walks past graffiti painted on Israel's controversial separation barrier in the Aida refugee camp situated inside the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on February 12, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX

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Refugees, Asylum-Seekers, Internally Displaced Persons and Stateless People in the World, 1970–2017

Source: UNHCR Population Statistics, http://popstats.unhcr.org.


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Categories of Walls

Defensive Walls

Since times ancient walls have served as fortifications in military defense structures. Early fortifications usually consisted in simple earth ramparts – often complemented with wooden palisades and external ditches. As defense mechanisms became more sophisticated, ramparts began to be built of stone or brick and were endowed with walking platforms, watchtowers, and shooting slits or crenels to more efficiently withstand sieges. With the progress of artillery (cannons) in the 14th century walls became ever thicker and, from the 16th century onwards, they were increasingly endowed with bastions allowing interlocking fire. With the massively improved firepower of artillery and the use of military aircraft, however, the importance of walls declined greatly in contemporary defense strategies.

City Walls

City walls or town walls have been common since Antiquity and have usually been punctuated with watchtowers and several massive gates. City walls commonly integrated topographic assets such as hillside location and/or proximity to rivers or seas to maximise their defensive potential. During the Middle Ages, city walls were booming and played a crucial role in medieval societies, imaginaries and economies. They served to delimit the political rights of burghers, regulate trade, collect taxes and signal a city's prestige. In the wake of rapid city growth and changing military technology (cannons), city walls progressively fell into obsolescence and were frequently dismantled.

Border Barriers

Border barriers are markers of separation running along international borders. They may be composed of different materials such as sand, wood, concrete, metal parts, fencing, barbed wire or, frequently, a combination thereof. Border barriers can range from the porous (e.g., mere berms or fencing) to the seemingly impermeable (e.g., multiple ranges of slabs of concrete equipped with tunnel and movement detectors, drones, night-vision equipment, floodlighting, etc.). They are typically built for a series of differing objectives such as security, controlling migration and discouraging traffickers. In certain cases, border barriers have also been built to buttress de facto claims over disputed international territory.

Walled Enclaves

An enclave is a part of a country that is surrounded by another country. Some enclaves such as the Spanish autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla in Northern Africa have extensive border fences and controls. Ceuta and Melilla each have two rows of high fences, completed with barbed wire, watchtowers, a patrol road and noise and movement sensors. Other famous enclaves include Kaliningrad (on whose border Lithuania is currently building a border fence), Nagorno Karabakh (an Armenian enclave surrounded by Azerbaijan), and the countless enclaves – including second-order enclaves – on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border, but for which India and Bangladeshi have signed an exchange agreement in 2015.

Gated Communities

Gated communities – barrios privados, condominio fechado or “colonies” – form residential complexes with entry and exit points guarded by private security personnel. They have mushroomed in countries such as India, South Africa, Canada, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Pakistan, and epitomise new forms of social and/or ethnic apartheid in urban settings. Sometimes gated communities are explicitly designed to cater to expat communities of foreign workers, as is frequently the case in the Middle East. Their perimeter is usually delimited by a circular set of walls and/or fences designed to shield their inhabitants from exterior violence. They are frequently built for self-sustainability (with their own power infrastructure, water reserves, sanitation, fuel, etc...) and in given cases (e.g. sects) also to prevent contact from community members with the outside world.

Diplomatic Enclaves

“Embassy districts” – and sometimes military bases – constitute another form of territorial enclaves. Diplomatic missions have frequently been grouped as gated communities, sometimes with extensive rights of extraterritoriality, as in the case of the 19th century Legation Quarter in Beijing. More recently, Pakistan has created a diplomatic enclave in Islamabad, constituting a special secured zone housing 43 embassies and high commissions which is closed to the general public. There are many other diplomatic enclaves in the world such as those of Kabul or Delhi (Chanakyapuri) but they are not necessarily gated.

Neighbourhood Walls

Neighbourhood walls usually consist in a series of separation barriers designed to counter inter-communal – often religious – violence within urban settings. The most famous sectarian barriers are the Belfast Peace Lines separating since 1969 the mainly Protestant-Unionist from the mainly Catholic-Nationalist areas. More recent examples include the 5-km-long “Baghdad Wall” built by the United States Army between the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiya and the surrounding Shiite districts, officially to prevent death squads and suicide bombings; or the cement wall built by the Syrian government to isolate the Sunni neighbourhood and former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr from the more upmarket and mostly Shia and Christian Al-Insha’at neighbourhood.

Maritime Walls

Booms or defensive chains spanning across harbours or rivers to prevent hostile naval attacks have been common in history. The chains would often be attached to towers allowing to raising or lowering them. Famous examples include the Roman Leonine Wall blocking the Tiber or the Golden Horn Chain stretching from Eminonu to Galata. More modern examples include anti-submarine nets that have been in use since World War I. Israel is currently building a sea barrier to reinforce its maritime delimitation with the Gaza Strip and “prevent infiltrations”. China, for its part, is working on the “Underwater Great Wall Project”, a surveillance system composed of a network of vessels with the aim of consolidatong its maritime ambitions in the Asia Pacific.

Ghetto Walls

The first ghetto was created in medieval Venice in the 16th century. Its roughly 1,000 inhabitants were locked in at night but were free to move and trade during the day. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries ghettoisation spread, with Jewish families settled by force into cities such as Venice, Frankfurt, Prague and Trieste. The Nazis systematised the ghetto system and closed Jews off hermetically behind walls and barbed wire. At its peak, the Warsaw Ghetto counted more than 400,000 Jews facing disease and starvation. Escapees were shot on sight. Today, Europe's estimated 10–12 million Roma face ghettoisation in several Eastern European countries. In Stolipinovo, Bulgaria, for instance, as many as 50,000 predominantly Roma (Gypsy) people are densely packed into gated communities. Several Slovak municipalities such as Ostrovany have erected walls to separate the residents of Roma ghettos from their white neighbours.


Walls have often been used to delimit agricultural and other parcels of land. Especially in areas of rocky soils, it was common for farmers to pile up the rocks gained from clearing their fields in order to demarcate their property. Traditional stone walls have thus become a regular feature of many rural landscapes.

Environmental/Protective Walls

Walls have further been built to protect human collectivities from natural disasters such as flooding (seawalls, leaves), storms or avalanches. Other protective walls serve to keep out noise from airports or highways. Sometimes, walls are explicitly designed for environmental protection – to preserve rather than to keep out –, as is the case in retaining walls whose objective is to stabilise terrains, prevent soil erosion or collect water.

Digital Walls

Even the seemingly borderless digital world is now replete with “gateways”, “access keys”, “block chains” and surveillance mechanism – which is perhaps best illustrated by the “Great Firewall of China”. China's Bureau of Public Information and Network Security Supervision combines legislative actions and new technologies to maintain “cyber sovereignty” and prevent its citizens from accessing “subversive” content. Its “Golden Shield Project” includes the outright blockage of foreign sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, DNS poisoning, self-censorship, manual enforcement through a brigade of hundreds of thousands of civil censors and, most importantly, blocking access to VPN services. Famously, China's digital censorship has led to the banishment of Winnie the Pooh, whose physical resemblance to chairman Xi has been deemed unbearable. China is not alone in erecting digital walls, as indicated by the annual reports of Reporters without Borders' singling out on a regular basis “enemies of the internet” such as  Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, North Korea and Belarus.

By Dominic Eggel

Increasing Number of Walls in the World, 1945–2018

Based on Samuel Granados, Zoeann Murphy, Kevin Schaul and Anthony Faiola, “Raising Barriers: A New Age of Walls”, The Washington Post, 12 October 2016.

United States/Mexico



South Korea/North Korea


Israeli West Bank Barrier

USD 10 to 20 billion
1,120 km between California and Texas, around a third of the total border length of 3,141 km.


  • In 1994, US Border Patrol installed sensors and stronger fencing in San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas. In the fall of 2006, the Congress authorised the construction of 700 miles of fencing in rural areas in California and Arizona. In January 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order to begin the extension of the border wall.
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Not known
The fence covers 3,200 km of the 4,096.7-km-long border


  • The fence finds its origin in the Assam Accord of 1985 signed between representatives of the Government of India and the leaders of the sub-national Assam Movement. The accord accommodated the claims of the Assam Movement to keep out irregular migrants. The construction of the fence started in 1993.
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CHF 1,400 million estimated
8 km already done of the 700-km-long project


  • Following the siege of Garissa University in 2015, the Kenyan government announced the construction of the wall.
  • Project stopped in January 2018 to open negotiations with the Somalian Government.
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Not known
764-km-long wall


  • In March 2015, Turkey closed its border with Syria.
  • In August 2015, the first section of the border wall was constructed in Reyhanli.
  • The wall was completed in June 2018.
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Not known
The DMZ is 250 km (160 miles) long and about 4 km (2.5 miles) wide.


  • In the Armistice Agreement of 27 July 1953, the DMZ was created as each side agreed to move their troops 2,000 m (2,200 yards) back from the front line, creating a 4-km-wide (2.5-mi-wide) buffer zone.
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Each kilometre costs EUR 2 million for a total cost of about EUR 1.4 billion.
700 km.


  • The barrier was built in 2002, during the Second Intifada that had begun in September 2000, and was officially justified by the Israeli need of security against the wave of violence.
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Definition of “Wall”

"The English word ‘wall’ is derived from the Latin vallus meaning a ‘stake’ or 'post’ and designated the wood-stake and earth palisade which formed the outer edge of a fortification. Walls have traditionally been built for defense, privacy, and to protect the people of a certain region from the influence or perceived danger posed by outsiders” (from Joshua J. Mark, Ancient History Encyclopedia, https://www.ancient.eu/wall/).

Walls are social constructions that are often used in a metaphorical sense, serving as canvas to cultural and/or political projections. An example in point is the 1979 album The Wall of the progressive/psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd. Physical walls are the offspring of our mental walls but physical walls, in turn, also impact our mental maps and the way we configure spatial identities and alterity.

In academic terms, walls have further been described as “an exercise in verticality” (Carl Nightingale), as “top-down controlled sluices of human movement, points of banishment, and perfect locations for tax collection” (Carl Nightingale), as “material things with symbolic meaning” (Tamar Herzog) and, finally, as “sites of negotiation and practice-making or -following” (Tamar Herzog).

All quotes from Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Tamar Herzog, Daniel Jütte, Carl Nightingale, William Rankin and Keren Weitzberg, “AHR Conversation: Walls, Borders, and Boundaries in World History”, American Historical Review 122, no. 5 (2017): 1501–1553, doi:10.1093/ahr/122.5.1501.

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