Female personnel of India's Border Security Force (BSF) patrol along the fencing of the India-Bangladesh international border at Dhanpur village in India's northeastern state of Tripura, 11 August 2014. Photo: Jayanta Dey / REUTERS

By Sudha Ramachandran
15 February 2017

(The Diplomat) – United States President Donald Trump’s plans to build a “great, great wall” along the United States’ 3,200 kilometer long border with Mexico to keep out what he calls “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists” is hardly a new idea. Several other countries, many motivated by Islamophobia, have fenced their borders with their neighbors to keep out illegal migrants, terrorists, and criminals.

Trump would do well to learn from the experience of these countries. Not only are their fences not particularly effective but also, constructing and managing them are enormously expensive in terms of money and human lives.

Take India, for instance, which has border fences with two of its neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The fence along its border with Bangladesh is aimed primarily at keeping Bangladeshi migrants from entering India. The decision to build a fence to keep them out was made in the 1980s when the issue of Bangladeshi migration turned politically explosive in the northeast Indian state of Assam.

A powerful mass agitation and armed insurgency in Assam drew attention to the impact of migration on the state’s demography, identity, voting patterns, employment, etc. And in a bid to placate Assamese passions on the subject, the Indian government agreed to put in place a slew of measures, including the construction of a fence to keep out “illegal migrants.”

India and Bangladesh share a 4,097 km long porous border, which snakes through plains, rivers, hills, and paddy fields. This borderland is densely populated; the people inhabiting it have numerous cross-border connections, some going back several centuries and others new.

An eight-foot-high fence of barbed wire, electrified in some stretches, runs along roughly 70 percent of this border. It is an intimidating structure but it hasn’t deterred Bangladeshi migrants anxious to cross into India to visit relatives or in search of livelihood security from making the perilous journey. Smugglers, drug couriers, human traffickers, and cattle rustlers from both sides of the border too continue to cross the border to ply their trade, often with the connivance of Indian and Bangladeshi border guards.

“Border fences rarely work to stop migration,” observes Reece Jones, associate professor at the University of Hawaii and author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move. Most borders, he points out “are too long and too lightly guarded to have an impact on people moving through that space.”

The fence is not “water-tight,” a Bangladeshi lawyer based in Khulna, an important source of out-migration, told The Diplomat. Where the border runs through rivers (roughly 1,116 km of the border is riverine), for instance, there is no fence. Some 44 km of Assam’s boundary with Bangladesh passes through the Brahmaputra River, a river which changes course every year. Construction of a permanent fence along this stretch has not been possible here and although patrol boats are deployed, “crossings are harder to monitor here,” allowing people to slip across between the two countries.

Besides, the fence has “several crossing points where people with fake documents or bribes can cross the border,” says Jones. Thus while a border fence “changes [population] movement patterns, it does not stop movement itself,” he points out.

As for its efficacy in keeping out terrorists from India, Jones says that the India-Bangladesh fence “likely has no impact.” A terrorist, he points out, “typically has the funds to pay for fake documents and simply cross the border at checkpoints or travel with valid documents.” [more]

The India-Bangladesh Wall: Lessons for Trump

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