Every border is a crime against humanity

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Nationality is a strange thing. To think that one’s identity would be so thoroughly determined by geography rather than self-determination may be a disquieting thought for some, but even the most rebellious would admit that, love it or hate it, your country is a big part of who you are.

Flags at the United Nations Headquarters
Which one is “yours?” Photo by Damzow.

We’re not all the same, of course. There’s enough variety among the citizens of even the smallest of countries to keep things interesting. But there’s very little that cultural heritage doesn’t impact, with everything from accents to politics getting shaped by geography.

Which is why it’s so weird to think about how accidental it all is.

Do we really choose our identity?

None of us chose our country of origin. It was entirely out of our little baby-sized hands. And even those who eventually find an adoptive new home are likely to be influenced by circumstances of their home country, such as a shared language or legal issues.

And this is to say nothing of how realistic the opportunity to relocate was in the first place. Citizens of modern countries have the luxury of being capable of relocating, and perhaps even more importantly, often have the luxury of being able to enjoy visa-free travel to their prospective new home, so they can sample the lifestyle ahead of time. Even getting a long-term visa is generally easier for citizens of Western countries than others.

Mostar Bridge, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The famous Mostar bridge, which connected the different sides (and cultures) of the city. Destroyed during the war, and rebuilt, the bridge is a major symbol of cultural inclusion.

And what’s more, these moves are generally more for pleasure, rather than necessity, in contrast to how it works for those in poorer regions, who leave their home to seek a better life. Yet it’s harder for them to seek stability than it is for us to seek a vacation.

Maps will map your life

The most egregious examples of this problem occur when the divisions are practically right next to each other. The Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and every DMZ on the planet put up barriers that carved apart communities, with what appear to be permanent effects.

DMZ, South Korea
Perhaps the most tragic border in the world, the DMZ between North and South Korea. Photo by Johannes Barre.

Even without the specter of warfare, these walls exist. EU citizens can travel visa-free pretty much all over the world, but if you were born in the Balkans, you’ve been clamoring for equally for decades. And it’s never about the people. Only their place of birth.

Thanks, emperor so-and-so.”

Even worse, those borders are pretty accidental, too. The map of the world has been subjected so thoroughly to the whims of kings, queens, khans, sultans, and emperors, whose conquest-fueled rise to power has determined the fate of billions by relegating them to one side of the border or another. If one particular king had marched north instead of south, that border might have been entirely different, as would the lives of those caught in the storm.

Which is why every border on the planet is a crime against humanity.

Borders are bullshit anyway

It’s not something we often think about. France is France, Peru is Peru. We’ve seen the same maps practically our entirely lives, with occasional changes here and there (mostly divisive, by the way). But it’s not often we think about how these borders formed. If we did, we’d immediately realize it’s all rather silly.

Take a look at how thoroughly things have changed, just in the last 500 years:

Ever wonder why those lines are drawn the way they are? Most often, nonsense and warfare:

  • Poland was literally moved to the west in the aftermath of World War II, with entire cities switched from one nationality to the other, along with massive swathes of land.
  • The Pope divided South America between Portugal and Spain, thus determining the economic and linguistic fate of the entire continent.
  • The Mongols nearly conquered Europe. They got all the way to the gates of Vienna, only turning back home for a funeral.
  • Australians only speak English because the British got to it first. It may very well have been China instead.
  • Speaking of China, they sailed all over the world, looking for cultures and civilizations as advanced as their own. They found none. Just before they got to Europe. Then an emperor destroyed all the long-distance ships because there was no point seeing what was out there. Then Europe came in and practically took over the entire place.
  • Spain is a huge mess. It has five different languages, so it’s odd that it turned out to be a single country, but changing it now might be even messier. It even used to include Portugal. Oh, and the Arabs used to rule the southern section. Plus there’s Gibraltar.
  • Austria and Germany are somehow two different countries. This would be weird, except for the fact that Germany used to be hundreds of countries. People at the time joked about how they had one country for every day of the year.
  • Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan. Yeah, that was totally gonna work out.
  • Italy used to be a mess of city-states and regional powers. If it weren’t for the unification efforts, it would probably still be half a dozen different countries.
  • Russia sold Alaska to the United States. Imagine how weird it would be if Russia still had it.
  • Um, Tibet. Plus Xinjiang, Manchuria, and Taiwan. China even wanted Mongolia too, but the USSR said no.
Narva/Ivangorod border
Narva and Ivangorod, staring each other down across the Estonian/Russian border.

And, as we know, most of the world map was drawn by colonial European powers. Those exactly-straight lines all over Africa? Thanks, England. That divide-and-conquer approach sure was nice of you. I’m sure nothing will go awkwardly when those divisions have nothing to do with geography, climate, language, or animal migration patterns or whatever. It’ll be just fine!


Why this rant? Well, it was sparked by a plain and simple predicament of a UK citizen trying to live in New Zealand. They wouldn’t let her. Apparently to extend your work visa you need to prove you can do a job that no New Zealander can. In other words, “no.”

Peach Arch, Canadian and American border
The Peach Arch celebrates the world’s longest unprotected border, between Canada and the United States. Photo by Abhinaba Basu.

I could go on, of course. Years ago I read of an American resident being deported to Cambodia over minor crimes. He left Cambodia as a baby, spent his whole life in America, only spoke English, and after a minor infraction was shipped back to Cambodia, because that’s what happens to non-citizens who commit minor crimes. Sounds like a cruel and unusual punishment to me, but hey…America can be mean. And I think gaining an outside perspective is exactly why Americans need to travel.

And then there’s the analysis of the international economic advantages of undaunted, worldwide social mobility, which indicates that eliminating all world borders would double global GDP. Imagine that.

But for me, it’s mostly the issue of morality. Relegating billions to a geographically-determined legal fate is not a pleasant thought. But I also don’t have an easy answer. No country can absorb the economic problems of the rest.

All you need is love!

I wonder if we’ll ever reach the point that we view humanity as a singular organization, a home team with no rival, entirely unified in our efforts at global development, scientific discovery, poverty reduction, and sustainability. To me, we’re all human. Plain and simple. Maybe we’d have cured cancer by now if we all felt the same way. Or colonized the moon. Or skipped over that whole slavery thing. And so on.

Baarle-Nassau restaurant, on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands.
There’s hope for us yet. A restaurant that sits right on the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. Photo by Jérôme.

I like to think I’m optimistic about it. The Schengen agreement has brought unrestricted travel to millions. More and more countries are joining cooperative economic unions. Southeast Asia is considering a unified tourist visa for all countries. I expect this sort of thing to continue, even if progress is slow. But I expect it will gradually unfold in our lifetimes.

We can get there, guys. No “us and them.” Just us.

One can hope.

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