Borders … They’re an inevitable part of the global landscape, some neutral, others divisive. Amid today’s growing fear of ‘the other’, Northern Ireland-born Leon McCarron explores the effects of borders on the people that live around them.
Where I grew up, I only knew of one border, but it was a very real one.
On one side were people who talked like me, and the road signs showed distances in miles. On the other, separated by a physical boundary of soldiers, bollards and razor wire fence, were people who traveled by kilometers instead and had ‘strange’ accents.
We had smoother roads, my mother said, but they had cheaper petrol. As a child, these separations seemed odd and unnecessary—and even at a young age, it was obvious to me that this border and the processes attached to it created an ‘us’ and ‘them’.
I’ve since noticed this otherness far beyond the shores of Northern Ireland. And wherever I’ve gone, borders have always been in the way.
Ireland is no longer so drastically divided and for some time now, you’ve been able to travel freely between north and south. The subtle changes feel little more than a shift in the wind.
It’s true too that it’s been my great (and unearned) privilege in life to have been born in a country that offers me the chance to travel—my Irish and British passports have been a golden ticket to see the world. And while borders have proved troublesome at times, they’ve rarely caused more than a delay in my plans.
Less fortunate are those who live in the countries that I’m traveling through.
There’s always a particular atmosphere in the areas around borders—and most travel advice will discourage staying longer than one has to. In some places, State Department and Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice will even mark out 16-kilometer corridors on either side of border areas as no-go zones, thus invalidating travel insurance.
Borders delineate the divides between our nation-states, but they also mark harsh transitions between language, religion, wealth or politics.
I fell afoul of that in Iran where I discovered mid-way through a six-week trip that I had unwittingly crossed in and out of an FCO ‘red-zone’ by the border over 20 times—luckily, it was one of the most enjoyable and safest journeys of my life.
And on a recent trip to the US, I cycled from Arizona to Colorado, and for the first three days along the Mexican border, I was passed almost hourly by border patrol cars, all checking I had the right documents to be on American soil.
The reasons for such tension should be obvious. Borders like these, and the physical barriers that are often built upon them, represent the many divisions between us. Sometimes, borders are designed to keep people out, as is the case in the US, and other times, they’re cultivated to keep people in—the former Soviet Union was perhaps the largest-scale example of that.
Borders delineate the divides between our nation-states, but they also mark harsh transitions between language, religion, wealth or politics. That abruptness is the primary factor in volatility when it arises; there’s rarely a blending of culture along hard borders.
In Europe, we’ve become used to the idea of free movement, since the end of World War Two paved the way for the founding of the EU and a peaceful Europe. For most of my lifetime, it’s been possible to move from the eastern extreme to the western with a minimum of fuss, with the correct passport.
The militarization of the border in Ireland for a time was very much an exception, but again, we’re seeing more walls going up again and access being restricted—since 2015, over 1290 kilometers of fences have gone up in Serbia, Hungary, Greece, Austria and others.
The main reason has been an influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East and, despite early signs pointing to European leaders welcoming those fleeing conflict and displacement, attitudes have quickly hardened. Borders that had been opened in the spirit of globalization and interdependence are now rapidly being slammed shut in the name of nationalism.
It remains the philosophical drive for all my work that there’s more that unites us than separates us, wherever we’re from, and every day, there’s evidence of how the fundamentals of our humanity can transcend boundaries.
And that’s partly why I’m writing this now, in 2019. While some of the world’s population have always lived with a hyper-awareness of the borderlands closest to them, fully aware of how they affect everyday life, many of us in Europe and North America are only now interrogating the concept so closely.
Over the last 10 years of travel, I’ve experienced a wide spectrum of the border phenomenon. Some are weird and wonderful: Between the Netherlands and Belgium, there’s a border that quite literally winds its way through the entwined towns of Baarle-Hertog and Baarle-Nassau, turning here and there to avoid or incorporate a house or street into one country or the other. White crosses mark it out, and a casual walk through the town might require 10 or more cross-nation hops.
A thousand miles southwest, I took a zip line across the Guadiana, an international river between Spain and Portugal. No passport was required. I’ve walked between Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania along remote ridgelines in the mountains, where the borders no longer carry the geo-political weight they once used to, and I’ve waited in line to go through the gates of the Separation Barrier between the State of Israel and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank.
This is one of the most militarized borders in the world, and perhaps the most criticized too. To the Israelis, it’s a wall for safety and protection, but to Palestinians it’s a land grab that’s isolating an occupied population from the rest of the world.
There are other borders too that are examples of just how strained the concept can become. The Wagah border between India and Pakistan has become symbolic in the decades-old dispute over Kashmir.
Each day, just before sunset, the national flags are lowered by both parties on either side and, to mark the moment, soldiers compete in elaborate marching, high-kicking, flag-folding ceremonies. When all’s said and done the moustachioed marchers depart, and the border is slammed shut.
Between Egypt and Sudan lies Bir Tawil, the only unclaimed landmass in the world besides Antarctica. Both countries dispute the border between their nations, and as a result, an area of nearly 3,370 square kilometers languishes empty and uninhabited.
And the two islands of the Diomedes archipelago in the Bering Strait that separates Russia and Alaska are more confusing still. Although only a couple of miles apart, the islands are separated by the international date line—so at any given point, the larger Russian-governed island is 21 hours ahead of its smaller, US-controlled brother.
After all the border-hopping, what’s clear to me is that there will always be borders—there always have been. Globally, it seems the trend to divide and carve up our landmasses is on the rise, reflecting a growing fear of ‘the other’ within our societies and nations.
These are worrying times, but history shows us there have been worse. It remains the philosophical drive for all my work that there’s more that unites us than separates us, wherever we’re from, and every day, there’s evidence of how the fundamentals of our humanity can transcend boundaries.
And that’s about as much of a conclusion as I can draw, for now. We have to have hope, and there are enough examples to show us that all is not lost. And while some may insist on walls, others are building bridges.