Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
edges of the conflict Arrow vol 7 no 1 contents
About borderlands volume 7 number 1, 2008


Edges of the Conflict: A Three-Fold Conceptualization of National Borders

Michele Acuto
Australian National University


Despite the vast amount of literature on de-territorialization, and the calls for a globalized world, borders are still relevant for many across the globe as they construct the international system and orient movement of individuals, populations and assets. But how do borders function, and what happens when they relate to intrastate conflict? Utilizing a theoretical analysis based on movements of people, resources and representations, this paper argues for a three-dimensional view of frontiers: as walls, as permeable ideal lines and as borderlands. The essay demonstrates that borders play a key role in intrastate conflict, both shaping and being shaped by what lies within them. Once this perspective is introduced in the study of the edges of states, the contemporary contradictory trends in border policy become clearer, and more addressable.



1. In November 1893 Sir Mortimer Durand sketched a random line on a map of south Asia, defining the western border of British India. In doing so he cut into half the Pashtun population that is nowadays still divided among Afghan and Pakistani territories. A few years before, at the 1884 Berlin Conference, several European leaders had decided to scramble Africa in zones of competence, assigning to each colonial power parts of the continent, and striking frontier nets across the African territories, regardless of their inhabitants. The majority of contemporary frontiers in Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Africa were drawn in a similar way. Nevertheless, borders retain strong symbolic meanings and, despite the de-territorialization claims of many contemporary analysts, significant physical presence as they are ‘time written in space’ (Rupnik, 1994: 103). In an era of globalization, from a Western (and mostly European) viewpoint, national borders are little more than lines on maps, far from our daily reality. We do not see them, thus they do not affect us. However, once tested in reality, this biased generalization is seriously falsified: borders exist, and impact the lives of many.

2. Understanding the role of national boundaries in intrastate wars requires two basic assumptions: firstly it must be acknowledged that, as Simmel wrote (1999: 607), the border is ‘not a spatial fact with sociological effects, but a sociological fact which takes a spatial form’; secondly, that the only way to appreciate a frontier is to observe its essence or, in other words, whether it is crossed, and why. Since the relation between territorial borders (seen as containers) and what lies within them (the content) is mutually formative, the presence of civil war will impact on the nature of these edges. Consequently, to appreciate borders in conflict, a three-fold approach is necessary to comprehend their changing nature.

The Three-Fold Approach

3. From concrete walls in the West Bank, to invisible lines on the Pyrenees, to minefields in Eastern Myanmar, borders have become increasingly ambiguous entities as they construct the international system and orient movement of individuals, populations and assets. However, while looking at political maps it is imperative to see beyond lines, since borders have more than a single spatial dimension. Borders have to be measured for their presence, or absence, and the role they play in constructing social relations. In this respect, boundaries and their relation to intrastate conflict can be best examined through three fundamental understandings which are not mutually exclusive but rather, in many instances, complementary. First, borders can be walls that hinder mobility; they have solid edges with progressively lower levels of permeability up to the point when they may form fortresses. Second, they can be understood as ideal lines that describe the geographical location of political communities but do not fence these latter from the outside world, rather representing socio-physiological intangible barriers. Third, they can have varying degrees of width that define the borderlands, those ‘littoral’ regions that gravitate around frontiers, characterizing the ends of a state not just in a linear way, but as demographically relevant sections of a country’s territory.

4. This classification does not aim to list national borders under different headings, because every frontier can either be a wall, or an ideal line, as well as borderland, depending on the historical situation, and the object in respect to which it is measured. The Indo-Pakistani border, for example, can be seen as a wall between the two countries, but it represents a simple ideological line if international trade is taken into consideration, while constituting a powerful means to describe a borderland region as Kashmir.

5. The three aspects are not necessarily desirable per se, as they respectively have both a positive and a negative significance. For instance, while a border’s porosity seems advantageous (mostly bearing in mind the EU example), there are circumstances when it becomes extremely dangerous, as in the case of gems and timber smuggling by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge rebels to Thailand, in order to finance the guerrillas. Furthermore, the orientation of the borders is an additional feature that should be analyzed: there is a substantial difference whether a wall is ‘built’ to protect the inside from the outside, or is meant to discourage the population from moving abroad, as in autocratic regimes like North Korea. On the other hand, especially in localized crisis situations, fences may be erected by neighbouring countries to avoid contagion.

6. Borders, as suggested by James Anderson and Liam O’Dowd (1999: 596), look inwards and outwards: ‘They are coercive, disabling and limiting, including and excluding many people against their will; but they are also benign and enabling, providing the basis for security.’ This reasoning becomes even more relevant when applied to conflict areas and, as we’ll see below in the case of refugees, presents serious consequences for the lives of millions of people every year.

7. However, a theoretical problem of this approach may be the measurement of these particular features of borders. The three-fold approach can be best conceptualized and employed if the object of the analysis is the movement (or the non-movement) of entities through the boundary. Hence, to appreciate the role of frontiers, and apply it to intrastate conflict, three categories will be taken into consideration: people, material resources and representations. For what concerns the latter, it should be noted that representations are indicated in this essay as sets of ideas, news and cultural ideologies that travel throughout boundaries, either with media networks or people-to-people sharing. Indeed, their role is as much important as the other two types. Considering the aforesaid case of Kashmir, for example, the extent to which the line is traversable changes in relation to the substance of the object that attempts to cross it: while a Pakistani may find it extremely difficult, ideas are easily ‘smuggled’ outside the border, towards the Kashmiri diaspora all over the world.

Borders as Walls

8. Borders are barriers. Even in a globalized 21st century, frontiers still matter, and at times in very significant ways. Understanding borders in their concrete dimensions, as walls, is crucial to the analysis of their relation to intrastate conflict.

Fig.1 – WALLS – When borders act as walls people, resources and ideas cannot exit, or enter, the war-torn country (1) and (5); displaced persons may in this case be redirected by the authority to ‘safe heavens’ within the territory (7). Refugees may also be rejected (2) or not granted asylum (3) by neighboring states, although in some instances people and resources may nevertheless be smuggled through third-parties (4), or frontier gaps, usually far from the central authority’s reach (6).

9. Contrary to the concept of ‘borderless world’ (Omahe 1990) and the frequently assumed irrelevance of frontiers in respect to contemporary warfare, boundaries have been strengthened in several cases as a reaction to the same phenomenon that is supposed to weaken them: increasing interconnection. The events of 9/11, the rising global awareness on the dangers of terrorist attacks, the growing xenophobia and nationalisms all contributed to highlight homeland security and border control. This is a worldwide trend, frequently labelled as re-territorialization, as opposed to the de-territorialization typical of the globalization phenomenon (Scott, 2002). This counter-tendency can be connected to the salience of territoriality: while, in theory, borders should not count anymore, in practice they do matter, and they do have effects on everyday life. Fortified borders are mainly aimed at material elements (resources and peoples) but can be extended to extreme levels of entrenchment, preventing representations from reaching the populations trapped within them. Knowledge becomes, in these circumstances, the enemy to be kept outside, as the examples of China and North Korea clearly show. To this extent, the relation between sovereignty claims and increasing interdependence has relevant effects on a specific issue as intrastate conflict.

10. Territoriality is overemphasized when societies (and governments above all) feel threatened either by external or internal perils. In the latter case, more and more autocratic executives use frontiers not just to fence against invaders, but also to control populations, and eventually decide what goes out, and what comes in. The role of ‘walls of defensibility’ (Herz 1957) is stressed to justify stronger jurisdiction and act as indiscriminate demarcation of the authority. This reflects not merely on import and export of goods, but largely on peoples’ mobility.

11. The role of refugees in intrastate conflict can be analysed to demonstrate how borders can become barriers. Their homeland, in localized wars, can in fact be both seen as a sanctuary (Anderson, O’Dowd & Wilson, 2002: 6) or a prison: failing states enraged by internal clashes and gradual loss of control can build even stronger walls in reaction to perceived menaces to their authority, thus augmenting the number of internally displaced people (IDPs). These in turn are forced to remain within the borders of a country at war with itself. Francis M. Deng, former UN special representative on IDPs, stressed that under this circumstances ‘citizenship becomes only a concept on paper [while] marginalization becomes tantamount to statelessness’ (Deng, 2004: 19). People are forced to move within borders, remaining outside of the international community’s reach, whilst being subject to national authorities (rather than the Refugees Conventions), that frequently try to hide these severe humanitarian crises. IDPs are therefore persecuted by their own governments, and frequently face worse situations than those who traverse international borders. Local administrations, while struggling to keep the country together, refuse to waive sovereign privileges, putting their political concerns in front of the survival of their population.

12. In Myanmar, for example, it is estimated that IDPs amount to at least 500,000 in Eastern Burma only, mainly due to human rights abuses and police actions against resistance groups perpetrated by the military junta. Refugees from the country are ‘only’ 58,500, a relatively low figure if compared to other conflict-torn areas, which is influenced by the highly militarized state and the extensively mined borders that surround the Asian country. Consequently, displaced persons are paradoxically (Deng, 2006: 218) abandoned under the care of those who cause the harm.

13. In some cases, however, the barrier is not constituted by the war-torn country’s border but rather by the neighbour’s frontiers. Whereas on paper the line that separates states is the same geographical entity, in reality the fences that refugees have to cross are two: firstly their own one, then the host’s confines. Hence, even in cases of failed states and extensive civil wars, individuals from conflict zones may be inhibited from leaving their territories.

14. Governments sceptically see refugees not as people fleeing the wretched conditions of their countries, but as dangerous masses that can threaten economic and social stability. In this view, asylum obstruction constitutes a barrier against people’s movements. Regarding the establishment of the internationally recognized principle of non-refoulement, which should preclude states from rejecting refugees at a county’s border, there are several (and growing) cases of obstructions. In fact, Article 33(1) of the UN Refugee Convention clearly states: ‘No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened’. However, as illustrated by Amnesty International (1997: 55-63), a number of practices that aim specifically at hindering the entrance of unwelcome people are frequently employed: introduction of new visa requirements; application of fines to airlines transporting passengers without documents; pre-flight screening; refoulement by custom officers without cause; declining asylum claims and interdiction on the high seas. These are just some of the possible hurdles that refugees may face upon their arrival.

15. Others include frequent claims by Western European states, the US and Australia that the protection of the asylum-seekers at their borders is up to a ‘safe third country’ which is represented by the first sovereign entity through which the refugees travelled to reach their frontiers. Finally, whilst the UNHCR Executive Committee (ExCom) has clearly stated in its Conclusion 44/1989, ‘detention should normally be avoided,’ this has become the customary treatment of illegal immigrants, regardless of their asylum claims. In short, several practices of ‘inexplicit’ refoulement are employed by the majority of countries facing refugee flows, thus creating real walls to immigration.

16. Strengthening the walls of the state is not, however, the only way to impede people from crossing the border. So-called ‘safe heavens’ have been created in a number of recent intrastate crises to offer protection to specific groups within national boundaries, applying the same founding principle of refugee camps, but towards IDPs. In addition, even international agencies, and the UN in primis, have employed this method to ‘protect’ people from conflict and systematic aggression. Unfortunately, the security of these areas is rather far from the heavenly metaphor that is employed: Srebrenica was, for example, declared ‘safe area’ by the UN in 1993, but at the first attack by the Army of Republika Srpska under the command of General Ratko Mladi? (July 1995) 8,000-odd Bosnians, that sought protection in the enclave, were butchered under the eyes of the UN peacekeepers.

17. The dangers in creating artificial borders within a war-torn zone are considerable, since this virtually locks IDPs inside the conflict, preventing any possibility to flee, and promoting forced internal migration with illusions of protection. Ironically, policy planners in the Balkan crisis tried to implement a reverse plan: while the borders stood still, populations were displaced to adjust populations to confines, and not vice-versa (Marfleet 2006). In this context, if international (or governmental) support collapses, people are left at the mercy of local armed forces.

18. Before drawing this section to an end, however, it is important to acknowledge that, in some particular instances, enforcing border controls has undoubtedly a positive role. This does not mean that all walls can be good, but rather that discretional barriers may help alleviate the burden of civil conflict. The current case of Iraq may be taken as an example: once the state collapsed, the rules that it enforced crumbled with its sovereignty, reducing the role of the 3,650 km of boundaries to little more than just lines in the sand. While this seems of little relevance in comparison to the degenerating internal situation of the country, in reality it strikes right at one of the roots of the civil war. As Robert Bateman recently highlighted, it took two years from the invasion before Coalition forces realized the relevance of fighters and munitions flows into Iraq (Bateman, 2006: 41). Uncontrolled and unrestricted, foreign jihadists, and mostly arms smugglers, cross the northern lands to fuel insurgency and rebel groups.

19. The role of border police is therefore not a marginal one, and it increases its salience when the fights depend on external supplies to be carried on for prolonged periods. To this extent, in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s plan for frontier patrolling largely underestimate the importance of trans-border smuggling, and firstly allocated 9,000 men to this task, only to reconsider the policy and assign a final strength of 28,000 in mid-2006.

Borders as Ideal Lines

20. The second aspect that should be evaluated is the most commonly described: borders can be porous at best, representing ideal lines on the maps, unable to effectively regulate transfers of goods, peoples and knowledge. This predominantly social definition of frontiers can help us understand how permeability can be, even more than solidity, ambiguous in its effects. In principle, freedom of movement is inherently positive, bearing its human rights connotation and fostering peace through interaction; however, not all import and export ‘activities’ are equally desirable, and some conveyances can endanger the stability of nations. In this view, the following paragraphs consider movements of people first, and of resources afterwards.

Fig.2 – IDEAL LINES – When frontiers represent just legal lines, refugees can cross the borders (2) to flee the civil war (and eventually be relocated in other countries’ refugee camps). Some barriers may exist where the authority is still present (1); but, generally, resources, representations and people can enter and exit the war-torn country (3), (4) and (5), military interventions be carried out by the international community (6), and conflict can expand to neighboring countries (7).

Movements of Peoples

21. During all the harshest humanitarian crises of the last decades people have been significantly displaced and boundaries have frequently become necessary stages on the way towards safer destinations, often marking the line between life and death. In 1994, for instance, over two million fled across Rwanda’s frontiers, seeking asylum and shelter in neighbouring countries as Zaire, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda; the possibility of traversing these national borders assured to those people a safe shelter from the ongoing genocide that was being perpetrated at home (Gleditsch & Ward, 2001: 740). Refugees have always headed for the international frontiers looking for asylum and temporary relocation, while fleeing from civil conflicts and unbearable conditions. The most common cause of this mass displacement is state failure, and the collapse of a central authority, which in turn looses its grip on border control and facilitates indiscriminate flows of desperate populations. In addition, systematic targeting of civilians, together with weak frontiers, has been proved by Will Moore and Stephen Shellman (2006: 619) to generate more refugees than IDPs, creating forced migrations as a consequence of civil wars.

22. As mentioned above, the contemporary perception of asylum-seekers is more and more knotted to homeland security concerns: refugees are usually seen as dangerous, capable of threatening their hosts’ stability as bearers of the plague of conflict. This can lead to extreme reactions as the one of Lebanon against the Palestinians in 1948, when the latter were detained in hostile camps and regularly harassed in order to spread among them a general sense of helplessness (Marfleet, 2006: 203). Secure areas have regularly been set up in regions close to the borders of war-torn countries, but even these ‘safe heavens’ have experienced similar perils to their aforementioned homonyms within the crises.

23. Furthermore, many asylum-seekers have been warehoused (as defined by the US Committee for Refugees) in rather inhumane conditions for over ten years, without perspectives of integration, repatriation or employment, fostering the growth of nationalist sentiments and the development of political activists that promote the perpetuation of intrastate conflicts, rather than peaceful settlements. Militants have thus taken advantage of these safe heavens to promote their legitimacy and their nationalist struggle. Refugee camps, while providing bases for political mobilization, have even be used as platforms from which cross-border offensives have been carried out, as in the already mentioned case of Hutu encampments in Zaire, that served as bases for violent strikes against the Tutsi majority in Rwanda in 1994 (Adelman, 2003: 96). In these cases the border served as mere ideological demarcation between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’ of civil conflict, and did not affect at all inwards and outwards movements.

24. Given such points, refugees are not only seen as victims, but also as bearers of conflict. They are considered as a ‘source of conflict diffusion’ (Gleditsch & Salehyan, 2006: 352) fostering contagion in the countries that surround the localized war, and creating regional instability as a spill-over effect of their forced migration. This can, in turn, encourage defensive policies and border-strengthening, restricting exit options for these masses, which will eventually cause escalation in the intrastate conflict, as well as in the humanitarian crisis. This assumption must be clarified, as it leaves much space to possible misinterpretations, especially in the current re-territorialization trend: refugees are neither a source of contagion, nor fighters, but rather, facilitators. They do not carry conflict with themselves as if it was an illness, but instead are used as a medium to augment grievances, and are exploited to foster further hostilities (Marfleet, 2006; Buhaugh & Gates, 2002). In this view, the role of governmental forces and international organizations in the camps becomes crucial to monitor and address possible abuses amongst the emigrants, while delivering aid and averting preventive border closures.

Movements of Resources

25. Although people movements are a clear example of the effect of conflict on porous frontiers, resources are perhaps the best measure to appreciate this second understanding of borders, and the inevitable transnational salience of intrastate wars. Even in cases where the permeability of confines is reduced to a minimum, and these act as walls, some gaps may persist, especially in areas located far from the centre of state control (Buhaugh & Gates, 2002: 420). Yet, fortified countries such as Iran, Myanmar or North Korea have to deal with goods smuggling as much as other ‘more open’ nations.

26. In the case of state failure and civil war, then, this phenomenon acquires stronger and stronger significance, as already indicated in the case of present-day Iraq. Philippe Le Billon highlighted that, in the history of war, resources ‘have motivated or financed the violent activities of many different types of belligerents’ (Le Billon, 2001: 562). During civil war, ‘commodities’ traverse national borders outwards, as gemstones or drugs, and inwards, as weapons and ammunitions, and vice-versa. Gaps in the wall of defensibility provide ports that have to be secured by rebel forces in order to assure their own survival by exporting local assets in exchange for foreign supplies. The higher the degree and extension of violence in the country, the easier this process will be, leading to possible expansion (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004) of the localized conflict to neighbours with weak border patrolling, whilst revolutionaries in these latter will acquire more and more means to mobilize their insurgencies.

27. In the Angolan civil war, for example, diamonds did not represent merely the main source of funding for insurgents, but rather ‘a major obstacle to any possible progress towards peace’ (Global Witness, 1998: 4). In 1998 Global Witness reported how these precious stones provided the core subsidy to Jonas Savimbis’ revolutionary front, known as the ‘National Union for the Total Independence of Angola’ (UNITA). This group controlled 60-70% of Angola’s diamond production, with a turnout of US$ 3.7 billion between 1992 and 1998, exporting through Congo-DRC, Zambia, central African countries as Ivory Coast, and through flights to South Africa, Namibia and Burundi, mostly in exchange for weapons and cash. Small arms, predominantly of Eastern European provenience and conveyed in the country with extreme ease, became so widespread in Angola that they also started to flow out of the country into Namibia and Zambia, fuelling other intrastate wars. This was possible thanks to a well established covert arms supply network across a region of vast borders with little potential for effective physical control, predominantly financed by blood diamonds (De Beer & Gamba, 2000: 86).

28. However, intrastate wars are not always self-funded through sheer illicit trades since, at times, rebel movements that engage in local conflicts may in reality be contractors for larger interests. This is the case of proxy wars, that is to say hostilities carried out by third parties on behalf of entities that are not directly involved in combats. Frontiers are, once again, absolutely irrelevant, while supplies and funds cross unguarded borderlines of states that eventually exist only on paper. For instance, the ‘civil’ conflict in Zaire (later Congo-DRC) between 1986 and 1999 has been used as an ‘outside battlefield’ where proxy guerrilla organizations either fought each other or the armies of their sponsor’s enemy. Uganda and Sudan were, in this occurrence, the major external patrons, with substantial contributions by Rwanda mainly in the Kivu province, whereas Congolese insurgents used to fly regularly to Khartoum to fetch weapons paid for, just like in Angola, with diamonds and cash. Gérard Prunier, in regard to borders, also noted that ‘not only are they often porous (the case of the Zaire/Congo being an extreme one), but ethnic solidarities existing across them are much more powerful than the formal citizenship people have to carry’ (Prunier, 2004: 383).

29. Finally, it is worth considering an emergent trend in international politics that has a growing influence on borders and territoriality. Since the mid-1990s the so-called ‘new humanitarianism’ (Barnett, 2005), and the definition by Western actors of a responsibility to protect victims of gross human rights violations (ICISS 2001), contributed to the development of new notions of sovereignty. This humanitarian approach, better funded (thus more dependant on donors) as well as more rapid and politicized (Rieff, 2002: 134), followed the general shift towards a positive concept of peace, defined by Johan Galtung (1969: 183) as ‘the absence of structural violence,’ and designed various restrictions to the liberties that sovereign states have. States are now seen as bound by dual obligations: they draw their rights from their citizens, towards whom they have duties, but they also retain rights and duties in the international community, which can sanction their non-compliances.

30. In this view, the goal of creating a broader space for interventions has ultimately led to loose understandings of sovereign authority, as the recent idea of contingent sovereignty (Elden, 2006: 14). Under this latter definition, territorial claims (and the ‘sanctity’ of borders) have been subjected to external judgement, to the extent that sovereignty may be lost, since there can be circumstances in which it does not apply. As in the cases of Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, borders have been forcibly crossed in the name of self-defence and human security, raising in turn a loud debate on the legitimacy of these aggressions. But as long as frontiers will be conceptualized as nothing but ‘lines in the sand’ this trend will promote more and more dubious interventions.

Frontiers and Borderlands

31. The understanding of borders as constituted by walls or ideal lines that depend on context, historical moment and location, is important but incomplete, and leads to typically binary measurements: how proximate states are to one another or whether frontiers are effective or not. Studies carried out under this ‘2D’ vision can be useful and accurate, but they undoubtedly lack a third ‘dimension’ which allows observers to appreciate the spatiality of boundaries. As acknowledged by Anderson and O’Dowd, ‘border’ and ‘frontier’ are two notions that merge into the one of border region, a defined space that ‘encompasses areas immediately beside a state’s external border, or straddling it, and also administrative regions’ (1999: 595). To this extent, being ‘on the border’ means more than simply facing a frontier.

32. Borderlands deserve particular attention as they correspond to grey zones, regions bisected by the boundary line between states that are informed by interactions or antagonisms amid the societies on the two sides. A certain understanding of this outlook has already been highlighted earlier in this paper, when frontiers have been described as constituted by two opposing legal lines, but the ‘littoral’ dimension of borderlands is more than just that. It is crucial to clarify here that what is commonly defined as ‘border’ is in fact a complex of various elements that go beyond the mere political lines between states. In this respect, the physical frontiers (made of walls, barbed wires, roadblocks etc.), the social boundaries and the geographical extension of borderlands are also necessary elements that define these complex areas. Hence, regions and districts adjacent to the frontiers acquire several meanings that, in times of conflict, are particularly enhanced.

Fig.3 – BORDERLANDS – If borders are understood as areas, rather than lines, interactions between societies on the two sides may be analyzed for their constructing role, which creates trans-border communities (1); borderlands can become conflict clusters where resources and people can be easily smuggled across the frontiers (2) by rebel groups (3), which will in turn carry out combats (4) in the rest of the country, stimulating police actions in these areas (6) and border patrolling (5); borderlands can also secede (7) after intrastate conflicts, checking the mobility of people in these areas (8); finally, borders can be constructed by the state itself (9) to fence people in, or defend against external aggressors, as in the case of minefields (10).

33. During civil wars, for example, insurgents that seek support or resources from abroad can also specifically target border regions for their intrinsic, tactical and material importance. The strategic relevance of borderlands, as already noted in regard to Angola, encourages the creation of conflict clusters far from the central power, following the principle of ‘the further the weaker’ (Boulding, 1962: 78). Thus, recalling Philip Le Billon: ‘Border towns and internal trading gateways take on new importance, leading to a peripheralization and fragmentation of political power’ (Le Billon, 2001: 571).

34. If this may not always be the case, especially in country-wide conflicts, it is anyway certain that borders continue to play a key role in all intrastate wars whenever one or more rebel groups can be identified, police actions cannot prevent insurgents from seeking profit and protection abroad, central authorities are weak, or the state has collapsed. Without doubt it can be asserted that control of international borders ‘ensures that the rebel army will fight another day’ (Buhaug & Gates, 2002: 422).

35. Although movements of goods and people offer tangible understanding of these regions, representations are perhaps the best means to appreciate the existence of borderlands beyond their purely geopolitical sense. Communication and knowledge characterize these zones for their constant cross-border relations, be they oriented co-operatively towards the neighbours or not. At the frontier, populations shape and are shaped by the ones on the other side of the fence, and redefine their identities in these terms. The transnationalism that develops in these ‘borderlands milieux’ (Martinez, 1994) is constituted by the sharing of ideas and traditions with their counterparts, a process partially conditioned by the peripheral location. Therefore, borderlanders develop a sense of separateness that makes them different from the core of their national society. This is even more true when the legal boundaries are laid without paying attention to pre-existent nationalities, as in the case of Kurdistan, or when populations find themselves split into sovereign states, despite their ethno-political affiliation, as the Basque Countries. However, it should also be noted that borderlands could be places of international conflict and accommodation, because of their cultural heterogeneity and their role as areas of immigration.

36. Looking back to the aforementioned definition by Georg Simmel, the frontier line (or wall) that creates the borderland is the result of a sociological fact: it can either be thought of as purely imaginary, and frequently crossed by a thick net of social interactions, or constructed as a wall of defensibility, up to the point when concrete barriers are built to avoid undesirable social relations. In both cases, the institution of a frontier, and the subsequent creation of a borderland, are sociological facts that take a spatial form.

37. Territories adjoining national boundaries are not the only disputed part of borderlands: the legal lines that constitute frontiers can themselves be the cause, source, and stake of a conflict. They can serve as a ‘clear-cut trip wires’ (Starr, 2006: 8) that trigger the hostilities, since moving armed forces across these ideal demarcations is a generally accepted sign of war. In several cases confrontations have begun within borderlands, ignited by trans-border incursions, before spreading to wider scenarios, for instance in the 1962 Indo-Chinese conflict. Accordingly, the challenged frontiers become pretexts and objectives of the struggle.

38. Governments may fight for borders between each other, as in the case of Kashmir, or against internal entities, either seeking independence or legitimization. The latter instance, better known as ‘unilateral secession’ (Buchanan, 2003: 246), involves border regions in intrastate clashes kindled by claims of self-determination. This is exemplified, among others, by the recent cases of Kosovo, Timor Leste and Aceh, which promoted the emergence of the earned sovereignty idea (Scharf, 2003: 374). Accordingly, authority over a territory can be understood as incremental, rather than absolute, and transferable from states to states, or even delegated to provisional governance bodies before being redirected to new leaderships. Hence, border regions can become new entities, specifically founded on their peculiar characteristics, and ‘freed’ in a fight between centre and periphery.

39. Borderlands can also be established to affirm one group’s dominance above others, or as solutions for intrastate wars. In these circumstances borders are likely to be built as walls, not just metaphorically, to separate conflicting parties, as Cyprus in 1974. In civil conflicts where the central authority deals with insurgents or minorities within the homeland, fences can be raised unilaterally by the sovereign state, creating enclaves. Probably, the best contemporary image of this is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which has recently developed in the construction of the ‘security barrier’ that divides Israel from the West Bank territories. Palestinians have been displaced and entrenched into the enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank, creating something similar to what Tanya Reinhart (2006: 157) called ‘a complex system of prisons’.

40. Barbed wires and separation fences have consequently been laid within the territory of the country, not to defend against external threats, but rather internal perils. In this occasion the notion of border as barrier is strengthened, confirming that not all borderlands provide the aforementioned transition milieux. Frontiers, as in the Palestinian case, can be created to spatially define communities, prevent the contacts amid them, and inflict one of the harshest forms of structural violence: segregation. Thus, in Israel, Boaz Atzili’s assertion ‘Good fences can make bad neighbors’ (2007: 139) has literally been confirmed.

41. Once defined, such borders are hard to be abolished, not because of their material construct, but due to their social consequences. This may have strong effects in the event of state failure since, theoretically, borders may change but in practice, as Stuart Elden highlighted, it is ‘more likely that some states may cease to be sovereign within them’ (2006: 22).

42. Overall, understanding that borders are constituted by more than just political lines, and specifically that they influence the spatial and social definitions of borderlands as ‘littoral’ spaces or frontier communities, should be a priority of those who engage in this field of study. The effect of a frontier on the adjacent regions is particularly significant in relation to intrastate fights, as its elements (walls, crossable lines and borderlands) have serious implications on the movements of peoples, goods and representations. Indeed, as it makes a great difference whether fleeing refugees are able to flee outside of a war-torn country, it is also important to understand why the definition of an area as ‘borderland’, or the demarcation of a section of territory through concrete barriers, influence the geography of conflict.

The Current Contradictory Trend

43. The three-fold analysis of frontiers in intrastate conflict can teach us some important lessons about borders. Firstly, borders are shaped by what lies within them, and thus war has deep impact upon them; secondly, they depend on the degree of control retained bythe sovereign authority, and can become serious impediments for representations and people; thirdly, they change in relation to the context and, in this specific case, to the extension of conflict, whether country-wide civil wars or localized insurgencies.

44. In this view, it is perhaps logical to locate this study in the overall trend of world politics. As shown by the case of ‘borders as walls’ and confirmed by the growing public concern about homeland security, frontiers are currently being reinforced to face external threats. National boundaries become crucial stakes in the norm of sovereignty-as-territorial-integrity, providing at the same time walls of defensibility and differential barriers (Anderson, 2002: 231). Going back once more to Simmel’s definition, this reinforcement twists the individual’s perception of reality, oversimplifying the existence of communities through a direct equation between spatial and social, and encouraging a zero-sum thinking (Anderson, O’Dowd & Wilson, 2002: 6). In short, self-interest strengthens borders.

45. This perception, however, coexists with an antithetical reality: frontiers are increasingly crossed by knowledge, migrations and trade, making them almost ineffective. Additionally, the same events that enhanced the emergence of the homeland-security paradigm have also fostered a de-territorialized war against terrorism, and more broadly a growth in armed interventions in foreign domestic affairs. Strengthened frontiers at home are coupled more and more with a securitization paradigm abroad, making border policy extremely discretional and context-driven, as pointed out by Amy Kaplan (2003: 89). Indeed, the 21st century’s awareness of borders has become an inherently contradictory one.46. Far from being easily solvable, this ‘borderlands Rubik’s cube’ presents a self-evident reality: national edges still exist and have a strong influence. Michel Warschawski, Israeli political activist, described it perfectly in a speech delivered in 1989:

The border is a pivotal concept in the life of every Israeli: it is a formative element in our collective life, it defines our horizons, serves as the boundary line between threat and the feeling of safety, and between enemies and brothers. In a country which is simultaneously a ghetto and a besieged bunker, the border is omnipresent, we run into it every step. (Warschawski, 2005: 3).

Therefore, as pointed out earlier in the text, scholars and practitioners must broaden their insights on borders to all the three aspects described here, instead of assuming that one in particular has to be more relevant than the others. If a three-fold analysis is taken into account, a multifaceted concept as the one of border can be better understood. For example, in the case of Israel, it would be misleading to see the frontiers solely as walls, as these also constitute a set of borderlands throughout the whole country, and affect the social interactions of a great part of the population. Likewise, it would also be simplistic to limit the comprehension of borders to movements of peoples, as the extent of what moves across frontiers is certainly higher, with goods, as well as representations and knowledge, constantly moving across boundaries. Additionally, further research on the effects of physical hindrances on these three categories should be undertaken, particularly in cases of intrastate conflict.

47. Indeed, borders should be objects of revision, as the societies that live with them grow more and more interdependent, and the need for concrete hindrances can be overcome by alternative means. While Kenichi Omahe’s ‘borderless world’ vision (1990) might still be on the horizon, frontiers can at least be redefined in terms of discretional barriers, with the intention of regulating, rather than impeding, movements. In this context, sitting on the fence is not an option. People can hedge from the outside world, or follow the example of those that Warschawski calls border runners and move across the boundaries to encourage interaction and mutual understanding. This will, in turn, promote a lesser need for fences and barbed wires and a more discretional understanding of the walls that constitute the edges of states.


Michele Acuto is course convenor at the Faculty of Asian Studies (ANU) where he co-coordinates a course on the nation-state in Asia-Pacific and the forces beyond, within and without it. He is also a teaching assistant in international humanitarian assistance at the Department of International Relations (ANU) and adviser for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. His research focuses on transnational issues, diplomacy, peacebuilding and human security.


Amnesty International 1997, ‘Refugees: Human Rights have no borders’, Amnesty International Publications, London.

Anderson, J & O’Dowd, L 1999, ‘Borders, border regions and territoriality: contradictory meanings, changing significance’, Regional Studies, vol. 33, no. 7, pp. 593-604.

Anderson, J 2002, ‘Borders after 11 September 2001’, Space & Polity, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 227-32.

Anderson, J, O’Dowd, L & Wilson, TM 2002, ‘Why study borders now?’, Regional and Federal Studies, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 1-12.

Atzili, B 2006/2007, ‘When good fences make bad neighbors’, International Security, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 139-73.

Barnett, M 2005, ‘Humanitarianism transformed’, Perspectives on Politics, vol. 3, no. 4, pp. 723-40.

Bateman, R 2006, ‘Iraq and the problem of border security,’ SAIS Review, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 41-47.

Boulding, KE 1962, Conflict and defense, Harper and Row, New York.

Buhaug, H & Gates, S 2002, ‘The geography of civil war’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 417-33.

Cilliers, J & Dietrich, C (eds) 2000, Angola’s war economy: the role of oil and diamonds, Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria.

Collier, P & Hoeffler, A 2004, ‘Greed and grievance in civil war.’ Oxford Economic Papers, vol. 56, no. 4, pp. 563-95.

Deng, FM 2004, ‘The impact of state failure on migration’, Mediterranean Quarterly, pp. 16-36.

Deng, FM 2006, ‘Divided nations: the paradox of national protection’, ANNALS of the AAPSS American Academy of Political & Social Science 603, pp. 217-25.

Elden, S 2006, ‘Contingent sovereignty, territorial integrity and the sanctity of borders’, SAIS Review, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 11-26.

Galtung, J 1969, ‘Violence, peace, and peace research’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 167-91.

Gleditsch, KS & Ward, M 2001, ‘Measuring space: a minimum-distance database and applications to International Studies’, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 38, no. 6, pp. 739-58.

Gleditsch, KS & Salehyan, I 2006, ‘Refugees and the spread of civil war’, International Organization, vol. 60, pp. 335-66.

Global Witness 1998, A rough trade: the role of companies and governments in the Angolan conflict, Global Witness Ltd, London.

Herz, J 1957, ‘The rise and demise of the territorial state’, World Politics, no. 9, pp. 473-93.

ICISS – International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001, The responsibility to protect, IDRC – International Development Research Centre, Ottawa.

Kaplan, A 2003, ‘Homeland insecurities: reflections on language and space’, Radical History Review, no. 85, pp. 82-93.

Le Billon, P 2001, ‘The political ecology of war: natural resources and armed conflicts’, Political Geography, no. 20, pp. 561-84.

Marfleet, P 2006, Refugees in a global era, Macmillan, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Martinez, OJ 1994, ‘The dynamics of border interaction’, in CH Schofield (ed.), Global boundaries: world boundaries, vol. 1, Routledge, London.

Moore, WH & Shellman, SM 2006, ‘Refugee or internally displaced person? To where should one flee?’, Comparative Political Studies, vol. 39, no. 5, pp. 599-622.

Ohmae, K 1990, The borderless world, William Collins, London.

Reinhart, T 2006, The road map to nowhere: Israel/Palestine since 2003, Verso, London.

Rieff, D 2002, A bed for the night, Vintage Original, London.

Scharf, MP 2003, ‘Earned sovereignty: judicial underpinnings’, Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 373-87.

Scott, JW 2002, ‘A networked space of meaning? Spatial politics as geostrategies of European integration’, Space & Polity, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 147-67.

Simmel, G 1999, Sociologie. Etudes Sur Les Formes De La Socialization, trans. L Deroche-Gurchel & S Muller, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.

Starr, H & Thomas, DG 2005, ‘The nature of borders and international conflict: revisiting hypotheses on territory’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, pp. 123-39.

Starr, H 2006, ‘International borders: what they are, what they mean, and why we should care’, SAIS Review, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 3-10.

Warschawski, M 2005, On the border, trans. L Laub, Pluto Press, London.

© borderlands ejournal 2008



To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810