Every border is a crime against humanity

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.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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18 Comments on “Every border is a crime against humanity”

  1. As someone who comes from a country which was literally moved to the West and who is planning to move to another country with TWO closed borders I have to leave here a comment. I totally agree! Also, I spent last 3 years working with asylum-seekers and immigrants. If someone here thinks, borders are reasonable, good and we need them, he or she should go and volunteer in refugee camp for a couple of days. ASAP. Thank you for this post!

    1. Yup, it’s rather tragic. I don’t think people think too much about it, because they think they “are” Italian or Indian or whatever, but it only worked out that way because of historical accidents, and that’s not a good reason for lives to be better or worse.

  2. They think so because they were taught so.And they don’t dig in the history. It’s incredible how fast people forget how the world looked before the change.In Central Europe, in all the “moved” countries” the ethnic identity is way too strong. Look what is going on in Hungary right now. I mean this concept of ethnically homogenous states is still doing good here. Wonder how many years we need for this mindset to evolve…

  3. Interesting thoughts here!

    And I’ve gotta point out – as for the UK citizen being denied a visa in NZ – the same is true of the United States. I’m Australian, and we cannot get a US working Visa unless we already have a job lined up and the employer states that they cannot find an American citizen to complete the job. In other words – HA GOOD LUCK SUCKER.

    Being Australian also means I’m pretty immune to borders. I always find it interesting when I travel.

    1. Yeah, we’re not particularly accommodating to our guests. It all seems so silly to me. Wouldn’t it be ideal to host a guest who’s NOT working, but still living in the country and spending freely? That way no one’s taking up a job slot that could go to a local, and the economy still gets cash. But nope. Apparently you have to have a job that not a single American can do, which is downright silly.

  4. Interesting post! As a Canadian, I have always found borders to be a bit odd. For instance, the Canada-USA border history, while generally peaceful is strange (“let’s just say its the 49th parallel…” ” oh, your survey results are different than mine… let’s just split the difference”). With Canada’s culture being so diverse, one would no doubt wonder why we are all one country (and this has been brought into question many times – think Quebec separatists). Then there is the question of why there is a floating part of the USA, Alaska, that by all logical thinking would be a part of Canada, however, the Russians offered Alaska to the States. And then there was Nunavut.

    1. I’ve been reading up on the Tatars and the Cossacks, both of which could have had their own country if history had turned out a little differently. Russia could very well have been a tiny subsection of a larger empire, with Russian people relegated to minority status, if the Tatars had played their hand better. Somehow Turkey got a country, but other Turkic groups didn’t. But since borders are drawn a certain way, and have been that way for most people’s lives, it’s easy to forget that Russia consists of a huge number of minority groups, despite just being a single entity on the map.

  5. Seriously, this is a great post (rant).

    I agree, borders make no sense- you example of Spain is a perfect one. Growing up in the cold war era, I wondered what held the USSR together with all those varied people. They seem like a reason for lazy thinking- a way for all of us to forget the fundamental truth that everyone is different.

    1. Speaking of the former Soviet Union, I was just reading the other day about Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. What a mess. And that’s to say nothing of Chechnya, North Ossetia, Dagestan, and that’s just a tiny space the size of Portugal or something. Is there any good reason the borders worked out the way they did?

  6. “All you need is love!”
    Once I was traveling in a place where, according to my government, I shouldn’t have. One of my favorite memories is that as we got into the taxi and pulled out onto the streets John Lennon’s Imagine was playing on the radio. Indeed.

  7. “Australians only speak English because the British got to it first. It may very well have been China instead.”

    This is not correct. Both Australia and New Sealand were discovered by Dutch explorers. Australia was discovered by Willem Janszoon in 1606 who named it New Holland. Nearly 200 years before the British ever set foot on the continent. The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman discovered now called Tasmania and New Sealand (Zeeland is a province of Holland) The sea dividing OZ and NZ is called the Tasman sea.

    The Dutch didn’t colonize both countries because they saw no use for what they called waste lands. Although this goes more for Australia. In those times ( the 1600’s) that meant no plantations and/or slave labor.

  8. This thread might have died, but the ideas here have not – and they cannot go without someone posting the little man’s view.

    A world without borders or visas? translation = American imperialism. Or Western imperialism, for quite a lot of Europeans do like the concept too. Only those coming from a dominant culture would vote for such an abhorrent idea. What about the millions of people from small countries who don’t want their cultures or countries swamped and overrun by American culture, or more precisely, by thousands of culturally insensitive, arrogant Americans?

    What about the people in developing countries whose jobs would be taken by outsiders from more developed countries? Whole economies would be overtaken by Americans and Europeans. There would be nothing ‘just’ about it. There would be no love on the side of those being overrun, just increased hatred.

    Look at my country of residence, Thailand, which already hosts millions of tourists each year – but pushes away countless thousands of Westerners trying to establish their lives here. Thais do welcome foreigners, but they also fear them, and they are united wholeheartedly in not wanting any kind of domination by foreigners. Note that foreigners cannot buy land in Thailand. Most are united in their opinion of American culture as being crass, overly commercial and, well, rather primitive – even while grabbing onto some aspects of it.

    And it is the same in every country here; Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia. They all like some aspects of Western culture, and often like Westerners in person (but not always, for Western foreigners can be exceptionally rude, arrogant and insensitive). No-one in these smaller countries wants to be swamped by Americans/ Westerners who are so convinced that their philosophies are the universal, correct ones that should be applied to all humans. Like ‘no borders’, and ‘all we need is love’ in the postings above.

    It sounds like love of oneself, and selfish concern for one’s personal satisfaction without concern for the feelings of those who are not as lucky or strong as you – especially those in small developing nations. And while I might not be a Thai national, I too come from a small country and also fear a world in which Americans can run, work and settle anyplace they like. Without borders the world is threatened with becoming one big tasteless porridge of humanity with an insipid American/Western odour, and no spice at all.

    Thanks for borders and controls.

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