Podcasts: Analysis

Border walls hurt the weakest and least to blame in the climate crisis

Fortified borders don’t stop migration – they just make inequality worse, just like climate change

Kristina Korte
2 November 2022, 6.30am

A man swims in flood water, Sehwan, Pakistan, 6 September 2022

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Akhtar Soomro / Reuters/ Alamy Stock Photo

Toronto University CERC Migration logo with extra white space.png

What do monsoons have to do with border walls?

Take a recent catastrophe: in June, Pakistan’s monsoon rains triggered devastating flooding that caused one of the worst natural disasters in recent history. More than a thousand people died and millions were displaced, many of them losing their homes and land. The cause? Climate change via warmer temperatures and Pakistan’s melting glaciers.

How could a border barrier be to blame for any of that? Fences separate Pakistan from India and Afghanistan, but it is political conflict, smuggling, migration and terrorism – not climate change – that has motivated their construction. However, from a broader perspective, border walls and climate change have much in common. Mobility and immobility, but also inequality, relate to both.

Walling out the poor

The number of border walls is increasing worldwide, from just 12 at the end of the Cold War, to 74 and counting. Mostly, they are a response to economic inequality across borders. The walls then reinforce those very inequalities.

I have researched mobility control at four border walls: those between Pakistan and India, Algeria and Morocco, Mexico and the US, and Serbia and Hungary. At each, the fences make crossings more difficult, but not impossible.

Inevitably, people will still attempt to cross if it is possible to do so. These would-be migrants provide a market for smugglers who can take them across the border – for a price. The more difficult it is to cross, the more expensive the journey: not only do smugglers’ fees rise, but bribery becomes more important. Therefore only those who can pay high prices can now cross the fortified border.

What is more, getting across such a border is more dangerous and physically challenging than crossing an invisible frontier. Border enforcement thus discriminates against those migrants who are not physically able to take dangerous routes.

Even those who live near a border without wanting to cross it suffer when the line is fortified, as economic and social ties across the border are cut.

The infrastructure for border closure is already in place in many regions where climate migration takes place

Where border populations are already marginalised, sealing the border further disadvantages them. For example, the impact of the US-Mexico border fence on US citizens living nearby is limited, as the fence does not stop them crossing. It’s a different story for Pakistanis living near the Indian border: they may not cross and so suffer much more than their US counterparts.

These, then, are the effects of border enforcement: fewer people may cross the border; more die on dangerous routes; and it makes life worse for the most marginalised. Existing inequalities – economic, physical and geographical – are reinforced.

Inequalities of climate change

The link between inequality and the climate crisis is straightforward. Adapting to climate change is expensive and those who cannot afford to adapt suffer the most. This is true for the poorest people within a country as well as for the poorest nations across the globe.

Climate change is driving many people to move from their homes. For the likely outcome we need only look at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in massive border closures and controls. As a result, the number of international migrants has increased less during the pandemic than in previous years. At the same time, the number of internal migrants in countries such as Bangladesh or Fiji, hard hit by the climate crisis, has increased dramatically.

Out of the four border fences I studied, three are situated in regions that are particularly threatened by climate change (the exception is the one between Hungary and Serbia). This means that the infrastructure for border closure is already in place in many regions where climate migration takes place.

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It scarcely needs be said that this is all extremely unfair. The world’s wealthiest nations are disproportionally responsible for global warming: 23 rich industrialised nations are responsible for 50% of all the world’s CO2 emissions to date; more than 150 countries are responsible for the other half. Some regions that are suffering most from climate change, such as many African or Asian countries, have hardly contributed to it at all – flood-devastated Pakistan is a case in point.

People must migrate

Climate change does not stop at national borders. By contrast, border walls may well block people forced from their homes by climate change. This will lead to even more internal migration, shifting the responsibility for coping with the consequences of climate change from the nations most responsible for it to those who are least responsible but suffer most.

Disasters like the tragic flooding in Pakistan will become only more frequent. The age of climate change thus requires migration as an adaptation strategy. Border walls are certainly not an adequate answer to the challenges we face. Yet the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are spending much more money on border control than on countering climate change. Instead, we urgently need to support those who are displaced – or trapped – by climate change.

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