Walls reflect poor policy decisions

From the United States to Iraq, governments continue to build barriers to solve problems

Participants run past Israel's West Bank separation barrier during the Palestine Marathon in Bethlehem. Ammar Awad / Reuters
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Walls are among the oldest forms of defence in human history. From the Great Wall of China to Hadrian’s Wall, the construction of large barriers for protection or regulation or to keep people contained has occupied a recurring spot in our collective history. Given technological advancements and human progress, it is remarkable that walls still play such a prominent role in our lives. While modern separation barriers are outfitted with surveillance technologies, that doesn’t alter their crude complexion. We know better than at any point in the past that walls are little more than manifestations of failed policy.

The Iraqi government has recently denied that it plans to encircle Baghdad with a wall designed to keep ISIL militants out of the capital. In Tunisia, a 200-kilometre barrier along the border with Libya has recently been completed. Its purpose is to keep militants out and ensure that the chaos engulfing Libya doesn’t seep across the border. The barrier will serve as a useful deterrent, but it is not a replacement for a comprehensive strategy addressing the regional instability in North Africa. Many politicians believe that walls can provide neat solutions to complex problems that require long-term solutions and negotiation. But there are no easy fixes.

The fence separating the United States and Mexico is a prime example. To solve the problem of illegal immigration, the US government would have to address the corrosive effects of certain trade agreements between Washington and Mexico City, along with the large numbers of vacant jobs that Americans refuse to consider but Mexicans are happy to fill. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Populist rhetoric coming from US presidential candidates supporting bigger and taller border walls represents a policy failure and an inability to solve the core issues surrounding illegal immigration.

In Israel and Palestine, the barriers slicing through the West Bank and cutting off the Gaza Strip represent unilateral Israeli moves designed to dictate the terms and contours of the conflict. Instead of forging ahead with the difficult work needed to establish an equitable framework for peace, Israel’s walls are half-hearted attempts to change the facts on the ground. As such, the walls have failed to achieve their stated goal of bringing peace. All over the world, walls have their place but they are not solutions in and of themselves for difficult policy questions.