The common assumption that borders refer to political partitions between recognised entities is challenged by the fact that they are often disputed, and that the formal lines used to delineate states and citizenship seldom map neatly onto the boundaries that define social, ethnic, linguistic and political groups. Boundaries, at their most basic, describe the informal lines drawn to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’, or friend and foe. Formal borders overlap with a range of invisible or informal dividing lines. A frontier describes the pliable political space that emerges through conquest and territorial acquisition, which a border is meant to close down and settle. Yet in practice, frontier dynamics continue long after nation states define their territorial limits. Such dynamics are often central to the way borderlands are treated in national and international policy, in particular seeing borderlands as ‘exceptional’ zones that warrant ‘exceptional’ kinds of intervention.
A distinct set of conflict relations emerges in borderlands. State presence is often limited. Borderlands are commonly home to ethnic, linguistic and kinship groups that straddle the border facilitating flows of trade and movements of people, and those living in borderlands may see the other side of the border as more significant than distant capitals and economic centres.
Some borders are relatively open, porous and unregulated. Others are heavily securitised. And, as the description of the Tarai blockade above illustrates, soft borders can quickly harden. Borderlands can be contested spaces that become havens for resistance movements and where non-state actors clash with state institutions. They may experience persistent violence and sharp economic inequalities, but may also foster new modes of development, extraction and trade.
Borderlands are often either overlooked or viewed negatively in statebuilding and peacebuilding interventions, seen as lagging or ‘disruptive’ zones that threaten state integrity and development processes, and that are only noticeable when violence escalates. Despite growing interest in inclusive peacebuilding, responses to borderland instability tend to prioritise security, overlooking historical processes of marginalisation or complex cross-border political, economic and social interdependencies. Common approaches have been centrally-driven, to pacify and regulate borderlands, seal them off, or negotiate deals with local power-holders that do little to empower borderland communities. In Myanmar, for example, local militias have been used to outsource violence and establish state authority over contested and ‘uncontrollable’ borderland areas.
Yet, borderlands are not inherently marginal and perceiving border regions as constraints on rather than opportunities for peaceful change creates gaps in both understanding and practice. Their strategic location at the intersection of states means they can be important for accessing regional economic markets, facilitating trade flows and shaping diplomatic relations and national security. Case studies in this publication show how, for example, borderlands in Ukraine, Kenya, Myanmar and Northern Ireland have been key to enhancing the economic reach and potential of the state, and integral to national growth and development.
The Madhesi blockade on goods coming across the border from India featured in Box 1 above is a stark example of the economic risks of failure to address borderland grievances. The case studies more broadly show how border regions function in different ways in peace and transition processes: as strategic zones – for various armed actors in Syria as buffer zones – the Tarai between Nepal and India zones of symbolic importance – as a bellwether for peace in Northern Ireland. Conflicts such as in Syria, Libya and Somalia traverse national boundaries, through trade routes, illicit economies, movement of weapons, armed groups and people, or ideologies.
Borderlands can become sites of regional and international power plays – as with Myanmar’s northern border regions for China, or the Donbas for Russia, the EU and Ukraine. Borderlands are also gendered zones, where specific identity groups may be included or excluded in times of crisis and stability, and structures and institutions are used to maintain such power relations. Borderland communities are not homogenous. Some borderland groups may benefit from tighter regulation of the border – for example the deals reached among armed groups to formalise the Syria–Turkey crossing point at Bab al-Hawa. Others will seek to promote freer movement of people and goods. These complex experiences of borders and borderlands produce multiple challenges for peacebudiling interventions to align with the needs of borderland communities.