The long border between Finland and Russia runs through thick forests. It is marked only by wooden posts with low fences meant to stop stray cattle. Soon, however, a stronger, higher fence will stand on parts of the frontier.
Earlier this month, Polish soldiers began laying coils of razor wire on the border with Kaliningrad. That part of Russian territory lies wedged between Poland and Lithuania. Previously, only occasional patrols of border guards guarded the area. Now officials plan to install cameras and an electronic monitoring system.
More than 30 years ago, the Berlin Wall that divided free West Germany from communist East Germany came down. Its fall symbolized hope for cooperation with authoritarian Russia. But Russia’s war in Ukraine ushered in a new era of confrontation in Europe. With it comes new barriers of steel, concrete, and barbed wire. This time, however, they’re built by the West.
“The Iron Curtain is gone, but the ‘barbed wire curtain’ is now unfortunately becoming the reality for much of Europe,” says Klaus Dodds. He is a professor of geopolitics. “The optimism that we had in Europe after 1989 is very much now gone.”
Some countries in the European Union (EU) began building border fences in response to refugee and migrant traffic. In 2015 alone, more than a million people fled to southern Europe from the Middle East and Africa. In 2015 and 2016, Russia ushered thousands of asylum-seekers, also mostly from the Middle East, to border checkpoints in northern Finland.
EU relations with Belarus deteriorated after that nation’s 2020 election. Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory, but the election was seen widely as fraudulent. Thousands of migrants crossed the EU’s borders then. In response, Poland and Lithuania erected walls along their borders with Belarus. Many security analysts believe Belarus coordinated the migrant traffic intentionally, with the help of Moscow. Michal Baranowski is head of the Poland office of the German Marshal Fund think tank. He says the migrant push from Belarus was “in effect destabilizing our borders ahead of war in Ukraine.”
More EU leaders have begun hardening their borders. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin announced plans to fortify parts of her country’s border. Moscow has threatened “serious military-political consequences” against Finland and Sweden for seeking to join NATO. Marin says the fortifications could help defend the nation against migration orchestrated by the Kremlin.
The new barriers offer little protection from missiles or tanks. Governments instead expect the walls, fences, and electronic surveillance to provide better control of their borders. Those measures could stop large migrant surges.
Dodds says Russia has been weaponizing migration for years. Russia bombed and harassed Syria in 2015. That was “a deliberate attempt to create a humanitarian crisis,” he says.
Human rights activists in Poland protest the 18-foot steel wall erected along 115 miles of its border with Belarus. They argue that it keeps out the weakest people (often those in real need) but not the most determined.
Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group spent months at that border. She says people use ladders to scale the fence. Others tunnel under it. About 1,800 migrants who made it inside Poland found themselves in forests desperate for food, water, or medicine.
“It’s very difficult territory, the east of Poland,” Alboth says. “There are a lot of animals. I had a situation where I went to one group, and I stepped on people who were half-conscious. I am sure there were many people like this.”
A Polish government security official, Stanislaw Zaryn, acknowledges the border wall doesn’t stop everyone seeking to cross illegally. But he adds, “It does allow our forces to act rapidly and more efficiently, without the need to deploy as much manpower as before.”
Dodds says he understands the impulse to build walls. But he warns that they rarely work as intended. Instead, walls often push migrants onto more hazardous journeys.
While militarized borders might be popular and sometimes necessary for national security, they also tend to dehumanize desperate migrants.
Building such walls and fences “sucks empathy and compassion from our societies,” Dodds says.
Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior, of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand. — Psalm 17:7
(Polish soldiers lay a razor wire barrier in Wisztyniec, Poland, on November 2, 2022. The barrier is along Poland’s border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. AP/Michal Kosc)