The most visual form of increasing the cost of migration for undocumented migrants – the building of walls and fences – has recently regained popularity among policymakers in Europe and the United States alike.
In 2015-16, several European borders were fortified or fences were built, at Calais and other borders like Hungary-Serbia, Austria-Italy and Macedonia-Greece. At the same time, President Donald Trump is pursuing an extension of existing border walls and fences at the southern border of the U.S.
For many, building a wall at the national borders is the most appealing way to curb illegal immigration, to regain control over entry and to improve security.
But often little thought goes into the effects such a border wall can have beyond reducing the absolute number of immigrants in the short term.
How Border Walls Change Migration Routes
It has repeatedly been shown that even very strict immigration policy regimes cannot prevent migration if they are poorly implemented and not coordinated with other policies. Instead, very restrictive immigration policies rather change the path and composition of migration. Increasing barriers to migration on one route usually shifts the flow of migrants quickly toward the second-best entry route.
For a whole region such as the European Union to discourage someone from illegally crossing its border by putting up a wall, the financial and non-financial costs to potential migrants of crossing any section of the external border need to become prohibitively high. This will require large expenditures and effective implementation in each and every member state on the external border. Otherwise, the member state where the external border is easiest to cross will become the main entry point, and fortifying borders will simply shift border crossings from one country to another.
Making borders less permeable will also have an effect on the choice of migration channels. If there are ways of entering the destination country legally, these will come into higher demand. Yet, legal options are not available for most of those shut out by a border wall. If there are no legal options, there will be more overstayed visas as well as overt and covert illegal entries.
Since many of those who would consider overstaying visas will never get one in the first place, building land-based walls is likely to further increase the attractiveness of the highly risky sea route.
Meanwhile, the more difficult a border is to cross, the more of the business of facilitating illegal border crossing will move from small-scale people smugglers to organized crime.
How Border Walls Change Who Migrates
If the border and all alternative ways of entry were effectively closed, which is very difficult and expensive, this would lead to a decrease in illegal immigration. Yet, if other attractive and reachable destinations exist, the overall emigration rate of a country is unlikely to change.
However, building border walls does impact who migrates. People who attempt the crossing of a newly reinforced border will be those with the highest expected benefits of crossing the border after considering all the involved expected costs and their alternatives.
First, this group will consist of people overestimating the gains from reaching a particular country, i.e., especially those who are poorly informed. Illegal immigrants lacking information are unlikely to be a good fit with the destination country, either economically or socially.
Second, this group will include those with actual high returns at the destination and, importantly, no better alternative. Given that illegal immigrants typically will not receive a working permit, this restricts them to the informal sector. When informal work is someone’s best alternative, it is likely they have some country-specific skills, networks that facilitate finding informal work, and a low education level.
This means that the share of migrants will increase from countries that already have important relationships with the destination country or family connections. More people will come from countries that already have a large diaspora and few other options.
Those not discouraged by a wall will be more willing to take risks, altering the composition toward younger, male and more desperate people. Refugees in particular will be unlikely to be deterred but will take great risks, resulting in tragedies like the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean.
How Border Walls and Deportation Policies Undermine Integration
Without a reliable and sufficiently likely threat of being deported, crossing the wall in any possible way might still be considered a worthwhile investment. Yet, deportation is only possible if countries of origin are willing to take back these migrants, and even then it has significant adverse side effects.
The risk of deportation comes with an immediate effect on migration decisions. For migrants who plan to settle in the destination country, the possibility of deportation constitutes an enormous cost. For migrants who are looking for short-term financial benefits through illegal or informal activities, the expected benefits from migration may not be outweighed by the costs.
In the U.S., for example, stepping up enforcement turns undocumented circular migrants from Mexico into a population of largely undocumented settled immigrants, without significantly reducing the likelihood of people making a first trip to the U.S. People are less likely to return to their country of origin if they run the risk of being unable to return to the U.S. after a home visit.
If there is no path to legalization for undocumented migrants, incentives prevail to keep themselves separate from the host society rather than to integrate and risk deportation. This will reduce social cohesion and may lead to the emergence of problem groups made up of socially excluded, precarious outsiders who are locked in in the destination country.
If such a group is highly visible, and particularly if the group is associated with negative characteristics like high crime rates, this can have negative spillovers on legal immigrants from the same countries of origin or other people who are associated with the same group by poorly informed members of society.
The act of building a wall will also have repercussions for the identity and perception of different groups in society.
The implication of fencing off the outside world is that outsiders are a problem. This can worsen relations between the majority population and minorities, thus hampering the integration and assimilation of legal immigrants and creating divides between the majority population and second- or third-generation immigrants from the same countries. That could worsen integration outcomes.
The building of walls also communicates insiders’ unwillingness to get involved with those beyond the wall. Especially for poorly informed migrants, the exclusion might even enhance the perception of desirability, further changing the mix of migrants.
As long as some entry routes remain open, border walls have been shown to fail their purpose of cutting illegal migration. Given the high estimated cost per illegal entry deterred, border walls are likely to be an inefficient use of money.
Reducing the number of illegal border crossings by building walls is far more complex than it might appear. Building walls entails many financial and non-financial costs for migrants, destination countries and societies at large.
Considering all of these ramifications, physical border walls are likely to be ineffective in many contexts and prone to causing detrimental side effects. Other policy options may turn out to be considerably better deals if society wants to curtail illegal border crossings.
This is an edited excerpt from the 2017 Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration (MEDAM)’s Assessment Report on Asylum and Migration Policies in Europe, “Sharing responsibility for refugees and expanding legal immigration.” MEDAM is a three-year research and consultation project that aims to close the gaps in existing research on asylum and migration policies, and to develop specific recommendations, primarily from an economic perspective. Research partners are the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence and the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a think tank in Brussels.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.