The World’s Most Dangerous Borders
Thirteen places you don't want to be stuck at.
Read an account of India's new Berlin Wall with Bangladesh here.
Far removed from the pie-in-the-sky talk of a borderless planet, the real world boasts hundreds of national borders -- many of them contested and some of them deadly. While the root cause of each conflict is distinct -- and some of them may be frozen in time, waiting for a spark -- the world's most dangerous borders share one trait in common: You don't want to be stuck there.
Read an account of India’s new Berlin Wall with Bangladesh here.
Far removed from the pie-in-the-sky talk of a borderless planet, the real world boasts hundreds of national borders — many of them contested and some of them deadly. While the root cause of each conflict is distinct — and some of them may be frozen in time, waiting for a spark — the world’s most dangerous borders share one trait in common: You don’t want to be stuck there.
SUDAN AND SOUTHERN SUDAN
Length: 1,350 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Dozens have been killed by bombings and more than 113,000 displaced in Sudan’s border state of Southern Kordofan since the beginning of June.
Background: By the time Sudan’s 22-year civil war ended in 2005, more than 1.5 million people had died, according to the BBC. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that officially terminated hostilities granted autonomy to Sudan’s restive southern region. Following an independence referendum this January, Southern Sudan is due to officially secede on July 9.
Today: This April, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir stated that he would not recognize the independence of Southern Sudan if its government claimed the Abyei region, which is part of Southern Kordofan. On June 5, Khartoum, claiming that Southern Sudanese militias had ambushed its forces, launched a military campaign in Southern Kordofan. The United Nations estimates that more than 113,000 people have been displaced as a consequence of Khartoum’s seizure and bombing of the contested Abyei region.
On June 20, the Khartoum government reached an agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement — the southern rebel movement that fought in the civil war against the north and will lead an independent Southern Sudan in July — to permit an armored brigade of several thousand Ethiopian peacekeepers to enter Abyei. But despite the accord, struck with the help of U.N. and African Union mediation, Khartoum has continued its offensive in the Blue Nile state and Southern Kordofan. More conflict seems likely.
ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images
INDIA AND PAKISTAN
Length: 1,800 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Three wars, more than 115,000 dead, ongoing nuclear weapons buildup.
Background: Ever since its bloody creation in 1947, which saw the displacement of millions and the killing of up to a million people, the border area between India and Pakistan has been marked by violence. Wars between the two states have left 15,000 dead, while as many as 100,000 have been killed in the disputed region of Kashmir alone. A cease-fire line, known as the Line of Control, remains in effect, with three areas of Kashmir under Indian administration and two under Pakistani control. Neither side formally recognizes the accession of the areas claimed by the other.
Today: Although large-scale fighting has subsided over the years in Kashmir, exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani soldiers are common. Secret talks between 2004 and 2007 established the framework for a settlement of the Kashmir conflict, but the discussions were scuttled by the spectacular 2008 attack on Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, which killed 163 people. On June 23, India and Pakistan opened their first formal talks on Kashmir in two and a half years. Although India’s foreign secretary said that she came with “an open mind and constructive spirit,” chances of a diplomatic breakthrough seem slim.
Meanwhile, the stakes are increasing. Pakistan expends a large percentage of its military budget to protect itself from India. Pakistan’s Army is the world’s seventh largest and consumes one-sixth of public funds, while being largely shielded from civilian oversight. In April, it announced that it had tested a new mobile missile with a miniaturized nuclear warhead designed to destroy tanks, thus increasing the risk that a border incursion could escalate beyond the use of conventional weapons. On May 13, the head of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate told the country’s parliament that he had already picked targets in India and rehearsed attacks — possibly nuclear ones, though he wouldn’t confirm or deny it.
SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images
AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN
Length: 1,500 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Lawlessness, al Qaeda and other militant groups, drone strikes.
Background: The border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan has long been one of the most dangerous and lawless places in the world. Kabul refuses to recognize the 1,500-mile-long Durand Line as an international border with Pakistan, instead claiming for itself the Pashtun territories in northwest Pakistan that comprise the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. According to the United Nations, more than 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, a legacy of decades of instability, occupation, and civil war. The ongoing border frictions are due in large part to tribal allegiances that span the century-old frontier. Forty percent of Afghanistan’s population is made up of Pashtuns; in Pakistan, the figure is about 15 to 20 percent. Many Pashtun nationalists on both sides of the Durand Line continue to demand an independent state of Pashtunistan.
Today: Incidents of violence have increased on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan — and the border region itself has provided a safe haven for a witches’ brew of militant groups fighting against both the U.S. forces and the Pakistani state. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has ramped up the use of drone strikes to target al Qaeda-linked groups along the border. As of June 23, there have been 253 drone strikes since 2004, with an estimated death toll between 1,557 and 2,464, according to the New America Foundation.
Violent border clashes between Pakistani and Afghan forces have also been an ongoing problem since May 2007, with numerous soldiers killed on both sides. On June 20, after an assault by Pakistani forces drove a group of militants across the border into eastern Afghanistan, the Afghan side accused Pakistan of shelling Afghan villages. Each country continues to blame the other for failing to crack down hard enough on militants along the porous borderline. The continuing violence threatens to make things more difficult for Washington as it prepares a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
UNITED STATES AND MEXICO
Length: 1,950 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Almost 40,000 people killed in Mexico since 2007, with almost half the deaths taking place in Mexican border states.
Background: Soon after taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police to take on Mexico’s drug cartels. Vowing to smash the drug gangs, Calderón appointed hard-line Interior Minister Francisco Ramírez Acuña, who vowed “to take back the spaces that organized crime has seized.” The violence exploded on both sides, with vicious retaliation killings becoming an almost daily affair in the dangerous border states where many of the cartels operate.
Today: As of June, about 40,000 people had died over the last four and a half years in drug-related killings across Mexico. About 45 percent of the deaths have occurred in the six Mexican states that hug the border: Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Sonora, and Tamaulipas. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have been driven from their homes, often to stay with relatives or in the United States. Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, the states most intensely affected by violence in 2010, had the highest rates of abandoned homes, with 211,000 and 230,000, respectively.
Most of the violence remains on the Mexican side of the border, but this June, El Paso, Texas, had the dubious honor of being named the most dangerous border town in the United States. In 2010, the bloodiest year to date, at least 3,100 of the more than 15,000 organized-crime killings that year took place in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city located right across the border from El Paso.
John Moore/Getty Images
CAMBODIA AND THAILAND
Length: 500 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Dozens killed and tens of thousands displaced on both sides of the border over disputed territory dating back to colonial times.
Background: For years, Cambodia and Thailand have fought over the Preah Vihear temple, situated along the border. Thailand argues that the area was never fully demarcated and blames a map drawn at the beginning of the 20th century during the French occupation of Cambodia for the lack of clarity. Following a lengthy dispute, the International Court of Justice in 1962 awarded the 11th-century Hindu temple to Cambodia. But the dispute over the 1.8-square-mile area around the holy site has never been resolved. Tensions between the two Southeast Asian neighbors have escalated in recent years, fueled in part by Cambodia’s successful 2008 UNESCO application to have the temple declared a World Heritage site, something the Thai government backed at the time but has since been pushed by nationalist groups to oppose.
Today: Since 2008, skirmishes along the border have become a regular occurrence, with the most recent bout of violence breaking out April 22. On May 4, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire, but neither country has shown full confidence in the agreement, and both have heavily fortified the border with hundreds of troops. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the area.
Paula Bronstei/Getty Images
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO AND ANGOLA
Length: 1,560 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Thousands of Congolese women and girls expelled from Angola are subject to rape and sexual violence by Angolan and Congolese security forces.
Background: Angola helped the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s government fight off Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebels during the DRC’s devastating 1998-2003 war. However, deteriorating relations between the two countries followed, including disputes over border demarcation, offshore oil ownership, and Congo’s rapprochements with Rwanda and Uganda, its neighbors to the east. The result was a series of punitive expulsions by both countries, forcing an estimated 211,000 people to move in 2009.
Today: These vulnerable transients have become pawns of war, especially the women. According to the United Nations, Congolese women and girls traveling through the border regions from Angola have been systematically sexually attacked on both sides of the border in shocking numbers — even for a region where sexual violence is endemic. In January, community leaders in Angola recorded 182 reported rapes in seven villages along the border, while a U.N. assessment mission confirmed 1,357 reported rape cases in one Angolan border village in a six-to-eight-month period last year.
“Women recounted that they were raped by uniformed [Angolan and Congolese] security forces during expulsion from Angola,” said Margot Wallstrom, U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, adding that the figures had probably been underreported.
MARC HOFFER/AFP/Getty Images
INDIA AND BANGLADESH
Length: 2,500 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Almost 1,000 Bangladeshis killed in the last 10 years.
Background: India and Bangladesh are bound by their history and geography. Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, gained its independence from West Pakistan in a bloody 1971 civil war with the support of India — a conflict that left more than a million people dead and shattered Bangladesh’s economy and infrastructure. The new nation has struggled to recover ever since.
India and Bangladesh share the world’s fifth-longest border, and an estimated 10 million to 20 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants live in India. Bangladesh, as a Muslim-majority country and the poorer neighbor to a rising India, is often at the mercy of Hindu-nationalist politics in India. Claiming that it needs to protect itself from terrorism, job-stealing illegal immigrants, and a potential refugee crisis, India began erecting a border fence 25 years ago and is scheduled to complete it by 2012.
Today: Although it rarely made headlines, the India-Bangladesh border was one of the bloodiest international borders this past decade. According to Human Rights Watch, India’s border security forces have fatally shot nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis trying to cross the border since 2000. In 2011, the number of Bangladeshis killed per month is down from its historical average — India announced in March that nonlethal weapons would be issued to Indian border guards in sensitive areas on an experimental basis — but it remains to be seen whether this, like times before, is just a temporary change in tactics.
NORTH KOREA AND SOUTH KOREA
Length: 150 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Military border fortification gone wild with almost 2 million troops, plus North Korean nukes.
Background: Since 1948, the 38th parallel has marked the division between North Korea and South Korea. At the conclusion of the Korean War in 1953, each side agreed to move its troops back from the front line, creating a 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Although the two Koreas agreed to a cease-fire, no peace agreement or treaty was signed, and therefore the two sides are technically still at war.
Today: While the DMZ has been largely peaceful in the almost six decades since the end of the Korean War, it remains one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders, with nearly 2 million soldiers patrolling both sides of the border. The past 18 months have been marked by an escalation in violence. A North Korean submarine reportedly sunk a South Korean warship in March 2010, and both sides exchanged fire after North Korea fired artillery at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010. Tensions are so high that on June 17, South Korean soldiers fired rifles at a South Korean commercial aircraft flying near the border after mistaking it for a North Korean jet fighter.
The United States, which maintains 28,000 troops in South Korea, has backed its South Korean ally to the hilt. Following joint military drills in February, North Korea accused South Korea and the United States of plotting to topple the North’s communist government. Pyongyang threatened to start a “full-scale” war, take “merciless counteraction,” and turn Seoul into a “sea of flames“ if provoked any further.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
VENEZUELA AND COLOMBIA
Length: 1,275 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Hundreds of leftist rebels leaving Venezuela and re-entering Colombia.
Background: A year ago, diplomatic relations were severed after then Colombian President Álvaro Uribe brought a complaint against Venezuela before the Organization of American States. Uribe accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in their 47-year campaign to overthrow the Colombian state.
Today: Relations could not be more different from a year ago. One of the first acts of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office in August 2010, was to make up with Chávez. This improvement in ties has resulted in big changes on the ground for left-wing rebels — long hidden on the Venezuelan side, beyond the reach of the Colombian security forces — who are increasingly being confronted by Venezuela. As a result, approximately 200 guerrilla fighters have crossed the border back into Colombia, leading to a rise in violence along Colombia’s Arauca border region. The border is now considered one of the most dangerous areas in Colombia, as the FARC have blown up oil and gas pipelines and attacked railways and Colombian security forces.
In March, the Colombian army intercepted a truck with rebel supplies from Venezuela. According to the military, the vehicle was carrying 1.5 tons of explosives, 16,000 feet of detonation cord, 17 rifles, 42,000 bullets, and almost 200 uniforms, all bound for the estimated 500 FARC rebels in Arauca. Despite the rise in violence, Colombian officials and residents along the border have welcomed the fact that Venezuela is taking action against the rebels. “There is still much to do, but our relations with the Venezuelan police are improving and there is real cooperation,” Col. William Guevara, the chief of police in Arauca, said last week.
EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images
CHAD AND SUDAN
Length: 850 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Armed rebel groups preying on hundreds of thousands of refugees from Darfur.
Background: Relations between Chad and Sudan have been strained due to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region and the civil war in Chad. After years of mutual meddling, the two countries signed an agreement in January 2010 to normalize relations and deny armed groups the use of their respective territories. The Chad-Sudan border, which had been closed since 2003, was reopened three months later. By the end of 2010, more than 262,000 Sudanese refugees from neighboring Darfur were still living in 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad, in addition to 180,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 38 IDP sites.
Today: Despite the normalization of relations, peace agreements with leaders of some armed groups, and a joint border-monitoring force, interethnic clashes and human rights violations continue along the Chad-Sudan border with almost total impunity. According to the United Nations, 48,000 IDPs returned in 2010 to their home villages near the border, yet most were reluctant to return because of the insecurity in their villages and the lack of basic services. In its annual 2011 country report, Amnesty International found that human rights abuses continue along the border, including rape of girls and women, recruitment of child soldiers, kidnapping of humanitarian personnel, and killings of civilians.
Analysts warn that it may only be a matter of time before the region explodes again. Renewed fighting between the Chadian National Army and the FPRN rebel group erupted in April 2010 along the Darfur border. The situation could further deteriorate with the absence of the United Nations’ MINURCAT peacekeeping mission that ended on Dec. 31, 2010.
GUILLAUME LAVALEE/AFP/Getty Images
SAUDI ARABIA AND YEMEN
Length: 900 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the potential for a massive influx of migrants due to nationwide unrest in Yemen.
Background: Saudi Arabia began constructing a security barrier in 2003 but stopped in 2004 after complaints by Yemen that it violated a previous border treaty. Following a brief war between the Saudi military and Yemeni rebels in 2009, Riyadh embarked on a multibillion-dollar effort to extend the network of fences it had begun building several years earlier. The intense fighting raised alarm in Riyadh about the possibility that Iran might be supporting Yemen’s Houthi rebels — who subscribe to an offshoot of Shiite Islam known as Zaydism.
Today: Saudi Arabia argues the barrier is necessary for protecting the kingdom from al Qaeda, an influx of illegal immigrants, and the smuggling of drugs and weapons — not to mention the Houthis. Every year hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants attempt to cross the border into Saudi Arabia; many come from Africa and across Yemen’s deserts, fleeing war and hunger. Most are caught and sent back to Yemen after being held in crowded border detention centers.
CHINA AND NORTH KOREA
Length: 880 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Massive refugee crisis due to North Korean instability.
Background: While the two countries have long enjoyed friendly relations, the lightly guarded border has become a growing security concern for Beijing as thousands of North Korean refugees have attempted to enter China illegally. Exact refugee numbers are hard to come by, but it’s estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 flooded the border during North Korea’s great famine in the mid- to late-1990s. China began to build a barbed wire and concrete fence along parts of its border with North Korea in October 2006. Since November 2010, there has been a stepped-up effort to fortify the border, particularly following warnings by foreign aid agencies that some 6 million North Koreans need urgent food aid because crops of potatoes, wheat, and barley had failed.
Today: China has erected security fences along an eight-mile stretch of the Yalu River around the Chinese city of Dandong, a popular escape point for North Korean refugees. China’s fear for the stability of North Korea was significantly heightened in March when reports surfaced of a growing food crisis following the severest winter in 60 years and an outbreak in North Korea of foot-and-mouth disease that hit the oxen, which are still primarily used to plough the North’s fields. The border has long served as North Korea’s lifeline to the outside world, both for dissidents and for the regime.
Cancan Chu/Getty Images
ISRAEL AND SYRIA
Length: 50 miles
Why it’s so dangerous: Instability in Syria, raising fears that border violence with Israel will be used to distract from the Syrian regime’s internal problems.
Background: For 37 years, the de facto border between Israel and Syria, which are still technically at war, has been relatively quiet. Israeli officials accuse Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of encouraging protesters to cross the border fence in an attempt to divert attention from his deadly crackdown on protesters within Syria.
Today: In May, amid domestic unrest in Syria, hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians crossed into the annexed Golan Heights as part of Nakba Day — the day that marks Israel’s creation in 1948. In response, Israeli soldiers killed four people and wounded dozens. Renewed clashes erupted in June, on the 44-year-anniversary of the Six Day War, as protesters again attempted to enter the Golan. Syria said that at least 23 people were killed, while the Israeli army countered that 10 people died — not as a result of Israeli gunfire but because protesters hurled firebombs that struck old Syrian land mines and caused them to explode.
For the last three decades, Israel’s northern border with Lebanon has been considered far more volatile, and the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been carefully monitored for smuggled weapons and illicit cash. But with Syria in chaos, that assessment may be changing.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?
The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.
China’s Crisis of Confidence
What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?
Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different
This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.
China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War
Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.