2016 was not a fun year. And if there is one symbol that sums it all up, it’s the wall.
Border walls certainly took a center stage in the U.S. presidential election. President-elect Donald Trump proposed the creation of a barrier wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in his very first speech as a presidential candidate. Since then, he has come back to that theme again and again and again.
Countries around the world have built more and more border walls since the end of the Cold War, especially in the last decade. One 2015 study found that of the 51 physical barriers built along borders since the end of World War II, approximately half were built between 2000 and 2014 alone. And the world’s interest in walls certainly hasn’t diminished over the past year. Instead, the global far right has only intensified its push for more border barriers.
From Mexico to Hungary to India, here are some of the walls that worried us in 2016 — and which we’ll be keeping an eye on next year.
A “big beautiful wall” along the U.S. — Mexico border
President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly made a campaign promise to build out the border barrier between the United States and Mexico. His plan for the construction of a border wall, which he insists Mexico will pay for despite Mexican President Peña Nieto saying otherwise, would include some fencing along the 1,933 mile long shared border and an increased law enforcement presence to prevent irregular migration.
“We will build a great wall along the southern border,” Trump said during a rally in Phoenix in September. “And Mexico will pay for the wall,” adding that the wall would be “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful.”
Trump’s promise to militarize the border is largely already in effect. Roughly 700 miles of physical fencing separate the United States and Mexico at heavily-trafficked points and sprawled across the flat desert landscape. Border agents, drones, and other forms of surveillance oversee rugged and jagged terrain. American taxpayers spend billions to secure the the border, too. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. government increased funding for border and port security, from $1.1 billion in 2001 to $1.5 billion in 2003. In 2015, lawmakers called for $3.8 billion in an appropriations bill. What’s more, Trump’s concrete wall could cost upwards of $25 billion.
The wall has been an effective deterrent for would-be border crossers. Human smugglers who transport desperate migrants through the southern U.S. border often seek out routes that have little surveillance, which leaves migrants vulnerable to exploitation and possible death. This year, border agents have already found the bodies of 287 migrants in Arizona, which hugs the southern border for about 360 miles. There were also more than 100 reported migrant deaths in the Rio Grande Valley Sector in Texas in the 2016 fiscal year.
The 13-foot wall in Calais, France
Earlier this month, the British government completed a 13-foot tall and 0.6 mile wide concrete wall along a highway in Calais, France to deter migrants and refugees from stowing away on trucks on the French side of the English Channel. That left people to stay in the “Jungle,” a now-dismantled makeshift refugee camp where more than 10,000 people lived in dire conditions.
A few months after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union — a major victory for the country’s far right — the British government pledged £17 million, or roughly $23 million, to pay for the wall as part of a joint Anglo-French effort to stop irregular migration through the Channel.
Authorities apprehended more than 84,000 migrants and refugees as they entered through the port at Calais in the past year. The clampdown came after 13 people — including three children — died on the road after they attempted to hop on vehicles driving through the Channel this year. But after French officials demolished the Calais camp, thousands of people were put on buses and given temporary housing while their asylum applications to the United Kingdom were processed. The United Kingdom took in at least 750 refugee children from Calais, but many have yet to be transferred from refugee centers to actual homes.
Hungary and walls on all sides
Few parts of Europe have been as impacted by the refugee crisis as the continent’s eastern region. Serving as a gateway to more idealized Western European neighbors, Eastern Europe has suffered from an influx of refugees and asylum seekers that has greatly taxed the resources of numerous countries and sparked significant backlash. Most infamous among these reactions is probably that of Hungary, whose right-wing anti-immigrant government immediately rejected the possibility of welcoming newcomers. A razor-wire fence currently runs along Hungary’s border with Serbia, which began construction in June 2015 with the specific purpose of deterring refugees from entering.
Numerous human rights violations have been reported as a result of Hungary’s walls.
Initially, only the Hungarian-Serbian border was fenced. However, as refugees shifted directions, Hungary began to build fences on all sides. In September 2015, a fence was built on the border with Slovenia (it was dismantled shortly afterwards). By October, another fence lined the Hungarian-Croatian border; around the same time, the government made it clear that a similar fence with Romania was being considered.
Numerous human rights violations have been reported as a result of Hungary’s walls. Refugees have been tear gassed, shot at, and faced extreme violence in their efforts to move further into Europe. Notable too are the historical implications of Hungary’s actions. Critiqued for helping to bring back the “Fortress Europe” mentality that existed during the Cold War, Hungary has come to represent some of the most virulent anti-refugee sentiment expressed since the crisis began.
Initial refugee counts in 2015 were massive, and the fences have greatly reduced the number of people who were able to enter. But Hungary has yet to cease with its walls. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced in August that a second fence would be built along the country’s southern border with Serbia and Croatia, reinforcing the initial structure.
India and its border walls
Even by traditional standards, this year was a difficult one for diplomacy in South Asia.
India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbors who share a lengthy, intertwined history and a tremendous amount of mutual animosity, spent much of it exchanging fire over the Line of Control (LoC). The LoC serves as the de facto border running through the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and has long been a source of antagonism for both countries. Fencing lines the LoC on its Indian side, which Pakistan has criticized. (India argues that the fence has reduced terrorism.) Elsewhere along their shared border, things are slightly less heated, but violence is still not uncommon. One of the more deadly attacks in recent years took place in 2014 when Wagah border, which hosts daily crowds and divides the Pakistani city of Lahore from the Indian city of Amritsar, was hit with an attack on its Pakistani side.
While India’s relationship with Pakistan is typically aggressive, relations with Bangladesh differ. Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 with India’s help, typically enjoys friendly relations with its towering neighbor — except where their shared border is concerned. Migrant workers from Bangladesh frequently cross without permission over the border into India, and smuggling has become a problem. India has railed against this, while Bangladesh has asserted that any Bangladeshis found living over the border without papers are the victims of trafficking. A fence of barbed wire has been slowly unfolded along the border over the course of the past decade, but it remains uncompleted.
That might all change soon. Seemingly to combat the issues it has with both neighbors, India announced on November 30 that it would be looking into a multi-layered and patrol-free fence along its borders with both neighboring countries. Inspired by Israel’s barrier wall, India has argued the fences are important to prevent the exact problems it sees its neighbors as posing — namely, terrorism, smuggling, and undocumented migration.
India has said the fences will be completed by 2017, though it is unclear just how quickly they will go up, much less how India’s neighbors will react when they do.
Austria finds itself geographically at the center of a few well-traveled migrant pathways. Earlier this year, Austria laid the groundwork for a fence to block off the Brenner Pass, a popular path for migrants and refugees who want to leave Italy for northern Europe.
Austria’s intention to build a fence has been the subject of popular protests for some months, with anarchists and other activists turning out to oppose the fence’s erection in May. The protest elicited a strong response from Italian police, who dispersed cans of tear gas at the firework and stone-throwing demonstrators. Austria has become a fan of fences, it would seem, as it began laying the groundwork for a 1.2 mile fence on the border with Hungary in September.
Many have criticized Austro-Hungarian border fence for violating the Schengen Agreement, a treaty which removed internal borders for EU nationals.
Then Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the wall was “shamelessly against European rules, as well as being against history, against logic and against the future.”
“This wall violates Schengen rules and is further proof that we are working in small national groups instead of trying to find a common solution,” Gianni Pitella, the president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, told Italian daily La Stampa in April.
Austria’s crackdown on refugees has ramped up as of late. A law was proposed earlier this month that could see migrants and refugees jailed for lying about their nationalities.
Things would likely have gotten much worse for migrants had Norbert Hofer, an anti-immigrant populist from a party created by former Nazis, been elected earlier this month. Instead, Hofer was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party.
Bulgaria and its walls
Since the EU deal in March that aimed to keep migrants and refugees from entering Europe via Greece, Bulgaria has become a new favorite entry point into Europe. Bulgaria has essentially tried to handle this issue by building walls everywhere it can.
Bulgaria and Turkey share about 160 miles of border, but 90 of those miles are now covered by a fence. The Bulgarian government decided in June that the migrants and refugees they cannot send back — and who make it across the wall — will now be sent to a camp in Pastrogor, in the country’s southeast. Sofia is trying to maintain good relations with Ankara, due to the presence of a Turkish minority in Bulgaria.
Trouble has plagued the Pastrogor camp in recent months, though. Around 300 people were arrested in late November after police banned them from leaving the camp and riots erupted. Locals are demanding the camp, inhabited mostly by Afghans, be closed.
Police have been drafted from Austria and Hungary to support Bulgarian police guarding the northwestern border with Serbia. Prime Minister Boiko Borisov also announced in March that Bulgaria was prepared to build a wall on the shared 310-mile border with Greece.
Over the past two years, many migrants and refugees looking to get to Germany and Scandinavia from the Middle East have crossed the so-called Balkan route along northern Europe. Macedonia fully shut down its border with Greece in March, saying that it was in response to Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia also shutting down their borders to people crossing into their countries illegally. By the end of March, 4,930 people crossed the Greek-Macedonian border, 10 percent fewer in comparison to the same month from the previous year. Idomeni, Greece became a major flashpoint as more people crossed from Macedonia. In April, tensions exploded Macedonian police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and injured hundreds of people trying to cross into Macedonia from Idomeni. By May, 400 riot police began clearing out an informal camp holding 8,500 residents in Idomeni.
There has been a drop off in the number of people trying to make their way to Western Europe after Greece sealed up its border with Macedonia. But refugees and migrants haven’t stopped trying to enter the European Union, even as governments have pulled back their welcome mats. Macedonia is a candidate for membership into the European Union, which means that it would have to abide by E.U. legislation. But under an E.U. agreement made last year, refugees should be resettled to other countries within Europe. Many have failed to achieve that goal. Macedonia itself has detained migrants, including children, and pushed back against accepting people caught at the border.
According to United Nations data, 18,480 people have been pushed back from Macedonia since early 2016, a vast majority of whom along the border with Greece. Only five of the 600,000 people registered since July 2015 have received refugee status in Macedonia, Legis reported.
Israel and Palestine
The wall (or barrier) dividing Israel and the West Bank, which lies in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, is nothing new, but in 2016 the stark division it symbolizes became more relevant than ever. Similar walls separate Israel from the occupied Gaza Strip, which also shares a fence with Egypt, but the barrier in the West Bank is more well known.
Built during the Second Intifada in 2000, the wall is a source of extreme national and international controversy. Israel’s government has long argued that the barrier serves as a deterrent against terrorism, and has gone to great lengths to promote and defend it, noting that terror attacks have declined since its creation. Palestinians, by contrast, often call it the “Berlin Wall” or “apartheid wall”, one that further violates their minimal rights.
The Palestinians’ anger isn’t surprising — the wall runs for approximately 400 miles, stretching significantly past the Green Line that marks Israel’s border, and deep into the West Bank. Consequently, the barrier’s length isolates a considerable number of Palestinians, and greatly infringes upon what little autonomy Palestinians currently have, making movement difficult and restricting access to medical facilities and to water.
If the barrier wall sounds familiar, that might well be because Donald Trump has cited it as an inspiration for his often-proposed border wall with Mexico. Trump, who currently enjoys a camaraderie with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, praised the barrier wall in September, and hailed it as a “successful” example of what might well exist in the United States.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the humanitarian crises the barrier wall has caused. Forced to travel through checkpoints, and with their overall mobility greatly reduced, Palestinians lack access to the infrastructure Israelis enjoy. The barrier makes reaching hospitals, cultural centers, and schools much more difficult, and the psychological impact on residents has been extreme. The wall puts Palestinians lives at risk and ensures that many continue to live in extreme poverty, without the basic resources necessary to live full lives.
Saudi Arabia did not build its war along the Yemeni border in 2016, but its significance cannot be understated in a year that saw the continued destruction of Yemen.
The fragile relationship between Yemen and Saudi Arabia stretches back before the war. Saudi Arabia has feared their Yemeni neighbors since creation of the state. “Within one year of Saudi Arabia’s emergence as a unified state in 1932, the Kingdom of Yemen had already declared war against its northern neighbor over a border dispute,” the Washington Institute wrote in a 2015 policy analysis.
A plan to build a border fence started but then abandoned in 2004. In 2012, the plan resurrected after an uprising in Yemen led to the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yemen split with the Houthi rebels taking over control of large swathes of land, including the capital Sana’a. Saudi feared instability from their southern neighbor would infiltrated their own country.
“Tightening security along the border with its southern neighbor has become more urgent for the kingdom after the Yemeni revolution in 2012 and the subsequent turmoil,” an English language news site from Saudi Arabia said in 2012.
Today, a 1,100 mile barrier separates Saudi Arabia from Yemen, running from the edge of the Red Sea coast all the way to the Omani border. The Saudis still fears a southern invasion, which motivated the indiscriminate (and American-backed) bombing campaign that has torn Yemen apart.
In the last year, the Saudi government has destroyed much of Sana’a’s infrastructure. Earlier this week, the Saudi government admitted it was using British cluster bombs to attack Yemen. The media focus on Yemen is more subdued compared to Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries — largely because its citizens aren’t fleeing en masse due to the country’s geography (and walls).
“People do not really have the courage or means and resources to do it,” Mogib Abdullah, a Yemeni spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters earlier this year. “I think they will just have to live with the realities they have. They are trapped and they will continue to be trapped, until the warring parties acknowledge that Yemenis deserve a better life at peace in their own country.”