So, Mum, why do we have borders?


Borders have cropped up a lot recently – in the context of migration into, and within, Europe and when thinking about the UK referendum on remaining in the EU. And then a friend said at the end of last week that her kids – 18 and 16; born in the UK and still living here – had asked her why we have borders.

When I heard their question, I realised that the point wouldn’t have crossed my mind when I was their age. I was a child of the Cold War era, when borders separated goodies and baddies, East and West.  Borders demarcated Berlin and its two parts.  They were a legacy of empire and colonial pasts.  You got a stamp in your passport when crossing from one country to another, even within Europe.

And then came the fall of the Berlin Wall, accession of eastern European countries into the EU and NATO and the irrelevance of borders within the Schengen area. Travel became cheaper and easier.  Gap years were taken by more students.  Long-haul travel moved to something resembling mainstream.

Borders were fractured by the internet and made irrelevant by email and social media and those processes helped to foster globalisation. Most of us now have family or friends who are outside our home country.  Perhaps more importantly, we assume that we will do so.  Where someone lives isn’t so very relevant as long as we can communicate easily and on a regular basis.

I’d dearly love to spend an hour inside the mind of the average western European teenager, to see what they take for granted and what puzzles them. I suspect that the notion of borders to keep one group of people in and others out, to deny access and to preserve rights and to otherwise specify what’s mine and what’s yours is something many of them would struggle with.

But there are signs that protectionism, homelands and borders are swinging back into fashion. I can see the reasoning people are following, even though I don’t like that particular shift of the pendulum.

Borders are with us, but we need to be clear about why we have them, what’s important about them and the purpose we want them to serve. Above all, we need to avoid borders being barriers – to openness, as well as to travel; to movement of ideas, as well as to movement of people.

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