The Great Wall of China is almost certainly the grandest and most famous extended border fortification in history—but it wasn't the world's first security wall, and it certainly isn’t the last. Since 2015, construction started on more barriers than at any time in recent history, a trend that began with 9/11 and quickly escalated, Washington Post recently reported. From the United States to Central Asia, Europe to the Middle East, 63 walls, fences, and other physical barriers now exist between countries to define borders, prevent movement, discourage smuggling, repel migrants and refugees, and sometimes, just to make a statement of authority to the region and the world.
In some cases, border walls are stone behemoths that remain standing centuries after the armies they were designed to repel have disbanded. Others are high-tech, minimalist wonders of engineering that rely more on technology than physical heft. Since walls by definition are designed to separate instead of unite, they often stand as controversial symbols of division, oppression, or humanitarian crisis.
In the U.S., a proposed border wall was recently the driving force behind the longest government shutdown in U.S. history and a political crisis that is still far from resolved. Here's a look at border walls around the world, the way they were built, the problems they were designed to solve, and the impact they've had on their regions and the entire world.
Arguably one of the world’s most controversial walls, the West Bank Wall, first erected in 2002, is the most visible and symbolically important structure in a network of barriers that separate Israel from the Palestinian territory it occupies in the West Bank. Many Israelis use language like "separation barrier" in describing the wall as a necessary buffer against what it perceives as violent, hostile neighbors. Palestinians, however, commonly refer to it simply as the "apartheid wall," since the vast majority of it cuts deep into West Bank territory, isolating and separating tens of thousands of Palestinians, severely restricting their movement, and serving as an accelerator for the confiscation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements.
Although Israel's West Bank Wall is an imposing fortification, the Jewish state's border with Egypt relies more on cutting-edge technology than on guard towers positioned on massive slabs of concrete. One of the most successful barriers in the world, the so-called smart fence—dubbed "Hourglass" by the Israeli Defense Ministry—has stopped virtually all of what had been a nearly constant stream of illegal migration from Africa. The physical barrier itself is difficult to overcome, but the real deterrent is the network of high-tech sensors installed throughout.
The physical barrier that separates India from Bangladesh is more than 95% finished. India is building the single layer fence to reduce illegal immigration, border killings, and cross-border crime that have plagued the 4,000 miles of frontier the countries share. The new fence will secure more than 250 Indian villages that lie between it and the nearby international border fence.
In 2006, Saudi Arabia began discussing plans for infrastructure to insulate the rich oil state from a conflict raging in neighboring Iraq. Although it's still under construction, the 600-mile barrier will include two parallel razor wire and chain-link fences that straddle concertina fencing, as well as ditches, sand berms, and watchtowers, all of which are manned by cameras and radar, while being patrolled by a fleet of military planes and ground vehicles.
As with so many other former Soviet republics, the border between the Central Asian nations of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are contentious by design, thanks to the divide-and-conquer occupation strategies favored by Joseph Stalin. Both nations, and the many different ethnic groups that have long called them home, engaged in violent border skirmishes throughout much of the post-Soviet 1990s, until Uzbekistan finally constructed a fence and laid landmines across much of the border. The 21st century has largely been defined by a tense stalemate between the embittered neighbors, but the recent arrival of a new Uzbek president compelled the two countries to finally start renegotiating the 800-mile border frontier.
Referred to by newspaper The Hill as "the mother of all border walls," the 160-mile Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has separated North Korea and South Korea since the end of the Korean War belies its name—it is, in fact, the most heavily militarized border in the world. As part of a tense stalemate that has endured since the early 1950s, tens of thousands of troops on both sides guard the DMZ, a labyrinth of electric fencing, razor wire, concrete, surveillance cameras, and landmines. In 2018, history was made when North Korean and South Korean troops crossed the DMZ and met peacefully in the middle.
In 2014, Russia defied international law when it annexed and occupied Crimea. Ukraine proved to be an explosive hotspot, with Russian-backed separatists battling against the government and Ukrainian loyalists ever since. Among the biggest areas of contention is the border wall that Russia quickly erected both to seal off Crimea and to make a statement of authority to international opposition.
Correction: An earlier version of this slide was titled the Russia-Crimea border wall. The title has been corrected and changed to the Ukraine-Crimea border wall.
Croatia and Slovenia share a roughly 400-mile border that was at the epicenter of Europe's refugee crisis. In 2015, Hungary closed its border with Croatia to redirect hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers—many of them en route to Austria and Germany from Africa and the Middle East—toward Slovenia is part of the passport-free travel area of Europe known as the Schengen Zone. In response, Slovenia erected a barbed wire fence along its border with Croatia in an effort to block the route.
Like so many other nations in the mid-2010s, Austria began building a border barrier to address a growing migration crisis. By 2015, waves of asylum-seekers who endured long, dangerous journeys had been pouring into Austria as part of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. That year, Austria built an approximately 7-foot-tall fence that spans 2.3 miles on its southern border in the passport-free Schengen Zone.
Nicaragua erected what it calls a "containment wall” on its southern border in response to an immigration crisis that began in 2015. That year, a wave of asylum-seekers and economic migrants arrived from South and Central America en route to the U.S., the latter of which was planning to soon tighten border controls. The wall was part of a hard-line policy designed to strand people in Costa Rica with no passage through Nicaragua, a move that created a humanitarian emergency. More recently, the wall has also prevented native Nicaraguans from fleeing an increasingly violent regime.
To avoid a perilous journey at sea, many African asylum-seekers and migrants choose instead to attempt the crossing at Ceuta, one of only two European land borders with Africa. In this tiny enclave on the border of Spain and Morocco, a 20-foot double fence spanning just four miles, topped with barbed wire and patrolled by a paramilitary force, is all that separates Europe from Africa. After Italy closed its borders to incoming migrants, attempted passage through Spain quadrupled in 2018 alone.
The only other place on Earth where Europe shares a land border with Africa is Melilla, another tiny that, like its coastal neighbor Ceuta, is a Spanish city in what would otherwise be part of Morocco. Also like Ceuta, Melilla for centuries served as a vital port city and has more recently become a prized gateway to Europe. In 1998, authorities constructed a high tech, sensor-equipped fence, far predating the contemporary refugee crisis in Europe.
When Pope Francis condemned then-candidate Donald Trump's proposed border wall as un-Christian in 2016, Trump responded by countering that "the Vatican has the biggest wall of them all." Trump was right—in part. The Vatican is a 100-acre enclave inside of Rome that is mostly surrounded by ancient and massive stone walls that once served as a fortress barrier, but some of Vatican City is open to the steady stream of tourists and pilgrims that flock there.
In 2012, Greece finished work on a fence that shuttered what was one of the safest and shortest points of entry to Europe through Turkey, setting the stage for the perilous and often deadly sea journeys that would become commonplace in 2015. The controversial fence, which spans the 125-mile land border between the two countries along the Evros River, cost just $3.3 million to build. Standing approximately 13-feet tall, the fence sits on a concrete base and is embedded with heavy duty barbed wire and a network of thermal cameras.
It's been more than 20 years since the former British colony of Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule, but the autonomous territory—among the richest, most densely populated, and globally significant cities on Earth—exists as a "special administrative region" of China under the "one country, two systems" doctrine. That division is starkly clear at the Frontier Closed Area, a 25-mile boundary established in 1951. The boundary consists of tightly controlled natural space, but nearly 20 miles of the Frontier Closed Area is a militarized, Cold War-style no-man's-land that is sealed off with barbed wire fencing.
Long synonymous with violent religious and sectarian divides, Northern Ireland has been an area defined by strict boundaries. A network of more than 60 structures designed to keep nationalists and unionists in their own neighborhoods and away from each other's throats, the so-called Peace Walls are now largely symbolic relics that are slipping into irrelevance—they're scheduled to be demolished by 2023.
For the last several years, Yemen has become the battlefield for a long, brutal and drawn-out war with Saudi Arabia. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, and Saudi Arabia is one of the richest—and the complex and divisive conflict has resulted in one of the most severe humanitarian catastrophes in recent history. Some of the tension can be traced to 2013, when in response to deteriorating conditions to Yemen, Saudi Arabia sealed its violent frontier border with a massive, 1,100-mile security fence.
For the last six months of 2018, a team of South African lawmakers, inspectors, and regulators toured the country's border fence that was meant to seal out Mozambique. What the team found was a porous, easily defeated system that unauthorized migrants were able to bypass with relative ease—a mere shell of a barrier that decades ago inspired fear and controversy. In the 1990s, South Africa received international condemnation for the fence and its 3,500 volts of electricity, which killed 89 people between 1986 and 1989 alone.
In an effort to ease simmering tensions, Kenya temporarily halted work on its approximately 435-mile border wall that's being built to stem the flow of Islamic militants from neighboring Somalia. The work stoppage is only temporary, and when finished, the wall is set to seal the border with a network of fences, ditches, concrete barriers, and observation posts.
Algeria has recently embarked on a major anti-terrorism initiative that is culminating in the construction of a 75-mile border wall meant to keep Islamic State group radicals from entering the country from neighboring Libya. Standing 10 feet tall and encased with barbed wire, the wall will cover the most porous portions of the 600-mile shared border.
Malaysia and Thailand have reached an agreement to build a border wall across a particularly vulnerable portion of the 400-mile common border. Both countries want the wall for increased security and heightened scrutiny of people who possess dual citizenship while preventing the flow of smuggled gasoline, people, and illegal drugs.
When thousands of asylum-seekers, many from Syria, began arriving to Norway through the so-called Arctic Route, the Nordic country decided to build a small border barrier with Russia. The 13-foot steel fence spans 650 feet across the road crossing into Europe's Schengen Zone.
The wall that separates Iran from Pakistan is among the world's most heavily fortified borders. The 435-mile wall stands 10 feet tall and 3 feet thick. One of the most powerful deterrents, however, was made by nature, not man: the vast, open desert.
When Botswana erected a 300-mile electrified fence along its northeastern border in 2003, neighboring Zimbabwe immediately drew comparisons to Israel's West Bank Wall, which immobilized scores of Palestinians the year before. Botswana erected the barrier to keep out not just unwelcome people, but animals as well. The fence was designed to curtail what Botswana claimed was an unrestricted and dangerous flow of diseased cows and unemployed migrants that it couldn't support.
The 1,600-mile border that divides Pakistan and Afghanistan is one of the most remote, dangerous, and porous frontiers in the world. In 2017, Pakistan's military quickly started work on a pair of fences that run parallel to each other with a gap in between, topped with coils of barbed wire. The militarized barrier on the troubled border also includes hundreds of forts and border posts.
Hungary was the main crossing point for hundreds of thousands of Europe-bound asylum-seekers during the refugee crisis of 2015. In response, the country hardened its laws and erected a hastily built razor wire fence. By 2017, however, that rudimentary obstacle was replaced with a massive and modern electric border fence equipped with cameras, sensors, and loudspeakers that blare warnings in several languages.
In 2018, Turkey completed work on a border wall that spans 475 miles of the country's 565-mile border with Syria, where brutal civil conflict have transformed the country into a refugee-producing machine. As the gateway between the Middle East and Europe, Turkey is at the heart of the global refugee crisis that compelled so many other countries to fortify their own borders in recent years.
Upon completion, the barrier that separates Nepal and India will be a high-tech marvel that repels and identifies intruders not with steel, concrete, and barbed wire, but with lasers. The pilot program, which is currently in effect in remote, uninhabited regions that serve as favorite crossing points for smugglers, will soon be expanded to much of the remaining frontier.
So-called migrant caravans originating in Central America and bound for the U.S. have made headlines in recent months, but the truth is that many northbound asylum-seekers and economic migrants never make it past the formidable barriers that span Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. Fencing seals off most of the more populated areas, and mountainous jungle terrain renders much of the rest nearly impassable.
Spanning 1,933 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern tip of Texas, the border between the U.S. and Mexico contains a scattered patchwork of barriers both natural and manmade, including 700 miles of non-continuous fencing, the Rio Grande River, and the open desert. President Donald Trump made a campaign promise to seal the border with a virtually impenetrable wall that would be paid for by Mexico. After two years of unified Republican control and, more recently, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the president has so far not been able to deliver on the promise.