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September 17, 2009 / jeni

The Nation-State Made Me Do It!

kurd borderKurdishMedia recently reported the killing of 21 Kurdish smugglers by Iranian authorities over the course of five weeks. In addition to the usual Jean Valjean defence, the website offers a historical perspective on smuggling in the region:

Transporting goods for the population of the border villages between Iraq, Ira[n] and Turkey has been a norm of life throughout history. Before establishing the nation states in the Middle East, transportation was not illegal. It was only with the establishment of nation states, the term changed from transportation to smuggling. The borders go across small Kurdish communities and until recently the borders did not have any meaning for the local populations, whose families were spread on both sides of the border.

It’s a problem not limited to Kurdistan. In Central Asia, for example, border communities that previously coexisted under the Soviet umbrella are now often artificially separated and subject to controls on movement and trade. It’s not a new story, by any means. Yet it raises a couple thoughts in the context of our project here.

First, it reminds us of the problems in creating a Nexus Lexicon. Obviously the concept of smuggling is a very old one, but its interpretation shifts with changing ideas about borders, conflict and individual rights. It is also highly normative — local communities clearly resist the notion of smuggling as a crime when it’s the only economic activity ensuring their survival, and when it was an accepted practice among their ancestors.

Second, we probably don’t talk about borders enough. Last summer I was able to spend some time with people working on Central Asian border programmes, and I was struck by one man’s observation: that for all the attention paid to political elites in the capital and military forces in the countryside, the real problems are always at the borders. This is fairly true, when you think about it. Whether it’s the flow of drugs or other illicit trade and funds, foreign fighters, cross-border sanctuaries, border disputes — an awful lot of conflict dynamics centre around border security and acceptance.

Which leads to the final thought: do we know what to do about borders? The practical and logistical obstacles to  establishing secure borders in conflict zones can be more or less insurmountable. Much thought has been given to whether Iran has the political will to more effectively control its border with Afghanistan, for example, but few point out the practical difficulties of securing a highly porous border nearly 1000 km long. Border management programmes tend to be underfunded and understaffed, and the potential for corruption extremely high.

At the same time, do we know what to think about borders? They are political constructs, after all, subject to shifting and divergent interpretations. At the same time that the Kurds continue to wrestle with the 20th century imposition of national borders in their region, Basques in France and Spain are enjoying newfound freedom of movement within the EU. There is no generic solution to the issue of cross-border ethnic communities; attempts to make life easier for locals largely depend on political goodwill from national elites. This is unlikely to coalesce for the Kurds, as Iran, Iraq and Turkey are united in their desire to preclude the emergence of a transborder Kurdish entity.

At any rate, there are some resources out there for anyone intrigued by border issues. Check out: the International Boundaries Research Unit,  the Association for Borderlands Studies and Borderbase.

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