Smart, Fortified, and Shifting Borders.
Recent Developments in Borders and Border Control

USA-Mexico-San-Diego-Tijuana-Border Towns
USA/Mexico: San Diego/Tijuana Border Towns

Territorial borders and border control are back on the political agenda. Globalization has not led to a world without borders. On the contrary, states have expanded the bordering function by fortifying borders, externalizing border control, and introducing digital “smart borders.” This blog post provides an overview of recent trends in borders and border control. The special issue “Borders as Places of Control. Fixing, Shifting, and Reinventing State Borders” of the journal Historical Social Research expands on these considerations.

Territoriale Grenzen und Grenzkontrollen stehen wieder auf der politischen Tagesordnung. Die Globalisierung hat nicht zu einer Welt ohne Grenzen geführt. Im Gegenteil, die Staaten haben die Grenzfunktion durch die Verstärkung der Grenzen, die Externalisierung der Grenzkontrolle und die Einführung digitaler “intelligenter Grenzen” erweitert. Dieser Blogbeitrag gibt einen Überblick über die jüngsten Trends bei Grenzen und Grenzkontrollen. Die Sonderausgabe “Borders as Places of Control. Fixing, Shifting, and Reinventing State Borders” der Zeitschrift Historical Social Research vertieft diese Überlegungen.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2021.56

Fortified borders

The fascination with border walls unifies populists such as Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump, but physical barriers are increasingly seen as an effective policy response by politicians across the globe. In a recent letter, a dozen EU ministers asked the European Commission to make funds available for the erection of physical barriers at the EU’s external borders [Link]. Such barriers are not without precedent in the EU. Several countries, including Hungary and Greece, have already erected border fences in the course of the European migration and refugee crisis of 2015–2016 [Link].

Figure 1 provides a global overview of the number of border fences from 1901 to 2015.1 The figure shows that the number of border fences fluctuated around ten until the end of the Soviet Union. Since then, border fences are built at an increasing pace. Although the newly erected border fences resemble military installations, they are not directed against opposing armies, but clandestine transnational actors (CTA) – e.g., unwanted migrants, terrorists, and smugglers.2


Today, border fences are a widespread approach that states employ to regulate migration flows. Yet, the territorial border line is often only “the last point of encounter”3 with the bordering function. Many states limit mobility already in source countries through visa requirements, carrier sanctions, and readmission agreements. Recently, the Danish government even passed a bill that enables the relocation of refugees to third countries in order to assess their asylum claims abroad [Link]. A similar policy has already been implemented by the Australian government, which processes asylum claims at detention centers on neighboring island states such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea [Link]. Other examples of externalization of migration governance include the EU-Turkey Agreement aimed at preventing irregular migration and the migration cooperation between Libya and Italy. Originally, these “remote control”4 measures were put in place to restrict unwanted mobility from poorer countries, while still enabling smooth travel for affluent tourists, diplomats, and businesspersons. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, new externalization measures such as “vaccine passports” and pre-arrival virus tests were made mandatory for cross-border travel. Although these requirements are easier to implement for citizens from wealthy states, they now affect populations that were previously exempt from travel restrictions. Overall, it is questionable whether states will relinquish their newfound controls when the pandemic subsides [Link].


Finally, digital technologies and databases are increasingly used to store (biometric) information of migrants and travelers. A case in point are automated border control systems (i.e., eGates), which verify a passport holder’s identity by checking whether the information stored in a biometric passport matches their fingerprints and face. In this case, the bordering function is detached from the actual border line and mapped onto the body of mobile persons. What is more, states routinely query and exchange information between police and migration databases, which are made interoperable.5 Such databases are often deployed on the grounds that they can identify “risky travelers.” However, “risk” is a very open and malleable concept. There is an inherent danger that migrants will be subjected to a logic of suspicion. With the consequence that their mobility is associated with violations of the law. In the context of “smart border” initiatives, territorial borders can once again take on increased significance. On the one hand, they are themselves “smartified” with the help of cameras and motion detectors, and on the other, they allow the collection of data.6


Globalization has not led to a world without borders. Certainly, in some parts of the world borders have become more open; but in other places, states expanded the bordering function by externalizing border control and introducing “smart borders.” Despite such adjustments, which have blurred the territorial fixity of border control practices, the actual borderline remains a pivotal vantage point for states. Accordingly, scholars should continue to trace how states adapt their borders to the challenges posed by globalization. The HSR special issue “Borders as Places of Control. Fixing, Shifting, and Reinventing State Borders” is an excellent starting point for diving into current debates about borders and border control.7


  1. The data is available in: Avdan, Nazli. 2019. Visas and Walls. Border Security in the Age of Terrorism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  2. Vallet, Élisabeth. 2021. State of border walls in a globalized world. In Borders and Border Walls. In-security, Symbolism, Vulnerabilities, ed. Andreánne Bissonnette and Élisabeth Vallet, 7-24. Abingdon: Routledge.
  3. Shachar, Ayelet. 2020. The Shifting Border: Legal Cartographies of Migration and Mobility. Edited by Laden, Antony Simon, Peter Niesen and David Owen, Critical Powers. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 5.
  4. Zolberg, Aristide R. (2006). Managing a World on the Move. Population and Development Review 32 (S1): 222-253.
  5. Amelung, Nina, and Helena Machado. 2019. ‘Bio-bordering’ processes in the EU: de-bordering and re-bordering along transnational systems of biometric database technologies. International Journal of Migration and Border Studies 5 (4): 392-408.
  6. Pallister-Willkins, Polly. 2016. How Walls Do Work: Security Barriers as Devices of Interruption And Data Capture. Security Dialogue 77 (2): 151-164.
  7. Read more about this in the detailed introduction: Fabian Gülzau, Steffen Mau & Kristina Korte: Borders as Places of Control. Fixing, Shifting and Reinventing State Borders. An Introduction. Historical Social Research 46 (2021) 3: 7-22. doi: 10.12759/hsr.46.2021.3.7-22

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