A line in the sand...

Our writers contemplate the existence of borders, and debate if they're really just lines on a map

Gerry Hart
7th May 2018
Image: Mapswire.com

Of all the contentious issues permeating modern discourse, the concept of the border seems to spark the most heated debate. For some, they are dangerous artificial barriers enforced through violence whilst to others, borders represent a necessary bulwark from external menaces.

But what actually is a border? I was having this discussion with my dad in the pub a few months back and the definition he reached was “a means of demarcating jurasidction over a given terriatory”. There’s some truth to this of course. Borders as they exist today are essentially a byproduct of the Westphalian nation-state system wherein states hold exclusive sovereignity over their own terriatory.

However that only provides a partial explanation as to what the modern border actually is. In many ways, borders are a process that constantly need enacting and enforcing, otherwise they’re nothing but meaningless lines on a map. Sure, they might follow pre-existing topographical features like rivers or mountain ranges but this isn’t an absolute rule. In many ways, borders are a process that require constant enacting and enforcement to retain meaning. Nor for that matter have borders functioned in the same way throughout history. Despite being renowned for their defensive networks, Roman borders for instance were remarkably porous and migration into the empire by so-called “barbarian” peoples can be traced as far back as the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE).


Borders permeate our day-to-day lives


We should also consider where borders actually lie. If we consider borders as monitoring and controlling the movement of peoples, then it also follows that places such as hospitals, our lecture theatres and detention centres such as the infamous Yarl Woods constitute borders insofar as they fulfill that very function. Rather than simply a distant line on a map, borders permeate our day-to-day lives.

So could a world without borders feasibly exist? Realistically, such a possability is a pipe dream but I don’t think its unreasonable for us to question how we enforce our borders. As things stand now, borders separate families, deny sanctuary to those who desperately need it and at worst can kill (as the migrant death toll in the Mediterranean and US-Mexico borders demonstrate). Do we really have to choose between our borders and our humanity?

Gerry Hart

Borders are useful. That’s not to say that they don’t cause all sorts of problems; wars have been fought over territory, and communities have been bisected by careless diplomats. Enclaves – regions belonging to one country but encapsulated by another – further complicate matters by cutting off a population from the rest of its country, creating isolation.

Borders also provide an excuse for the more xenophobic members of society to enforce their own prejudices. Remember Brexit? I try not to, but a key point about the Leave campaign was that they wanted to ‘secure our borders’ from the ‘naughty Europeans’ that do ‘bad things’, like work in the NHS.

So far I’ve been pissing all over borders but not actually mentioned any positives. Well, the ability to describe a particular area is pretty handy. Nobody’s going to understand you if you say ‘oh I’m going to 36°43’N 4°25’W’, but most people will know where ‘southern Spain’ is. They also help decentralise power across the globe while ensuring that governments know exactly whom they are supposed to be managing.


The ability to describe a particular area is pretty handy


In my opinion though, the best part of borders is the ability to keep disease in check. If you play a few minutes of Plague Inc. – a surprisingly accurate disease simulator – you will find that one of the best ways to spread a disease is to travel on a plane or ship. Europeans moving to the Americas in the 1500s wiped out the locals by unwittingly giving them smallpox, and Canadian frogs are dying from a disease brought up by humans travelling up from the south. If we didn’t have borders, containing the Ebola and Zika outbreaks in the past decade would have been much harder, and far more people would have died.

Are the ideological benefits of removing borders worth the epidemiological risks? I, for one, doubt it.

Jack Coles


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