The East–West dichotomy within the EU has become very marked in relation to the European migration crisis of 2014–2015 and its aftermath. In my view the distinct migration-related experiences on the two sides of the Iron Curtain do contribute to the current marked differences in pro- and anti-immigration policies and attitudes in Western and Eastern European1 countries amidst the migration crisis.

Hungary is a case in point. It was the first Eastern bloc country to dismantle the hated and feared Iron Curtain in August 1989 when it opened the border fences to East German migrants on their way to West Germany. In November that year the Berlin Wall was torn down. Today Hungary is located on the external Schengen borders of the EU. At the height of the migration crisis, in the summer of 2015, Hungary became the first EU country within the Schengen zone to erect a border fence. This phenomenon has been looked at especially critically in the case of a nation that tore down the Iron Curtain and has now “replaced” it. Strangely enough, the same border fence building on the Bulgarian–Turkish border starting in 2013 by EU member, but non-Schengen zone member, Bulgaria did not create such tidal waves of criticism, even though – ironically – both countries’ barriers run along identical lines of the Iron Curtain.2

The decision to build what was conceived as a temporary border barrier or border fence was made for compelling reasons. The number of asylum applications skyrocketed to 46,720 in August of 2015 – a world record at the time – overburdening the country’s immigration system and infrastructure.3 The number of asylum applications per year multiplied in Hungary from 2012 to 2015 from 4,676 persons to 177,135 persons.4 In most cases, migrants were not willing to cooperate with the Hungarian authorities but aimed to pour through the country illegally either by not waiting for the adjudication of their asylum applications – as it happened in 90 per cent of the cases – or through bypassing the screening process altogether on their way to Germany, Sweden or the UK. Unknown numbers failed to register and apply for asylum in Hungary before entering the borderless Schengen zone despite the efforts of the authorities; most did not comply with or wait for the results of their medical examinations either. The massive irregular entry thus defied the rule of law and order, and created utter chaos along the route between Hungary’s southern and western borders.5 It led to traffic safety violations with masses walking along the motorways. It constituted a major health hazard with several migrants diagnosed with infectious diseases,6 and it posed a national and international security threat as it would turn out later. In October 2016, Hungary’s Counter-Terrorism Centre revealed that seven ISIS terrorists had entered the EU via Hungary over the summer of 2015 by taking advantage of migrant crowds and they set up a “logistics hub” in the country where they planned and prepared the November 2015 Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives, and the March 2016 Brussels attacks, killing 32 people.7

To normalise the chaotic situation and restore the rule of law, first an emergency razor wire coil fence, then a concertina wire fence was built on the most critical 109 miles (175 kilometres) Hungarian–Serbian border by September 2015, and by October, it was extended to the 213 miles (345 kilometres) Hungarian–Croatian border too, thus sealing off the country’s entire 322 miles (520 kilometres) long southern Schengen border. By April 2017, the Hungarian–Serbian section was further reinforced and upgraded with high-tech border defences (smart fence) in addition to the 24/7 human wall of guards. The guarded border fence has proved highly effective from the beginning, with monthly apprehensions dropping by 99 per cent between September and November 2015 (from 138,369 to 315). Asylum applications reached a record low of 175 persons in December of 2015, with annual statistics showing an 83 per cent decrease between 2015 and 2016 (from 177,135 to 29,432).8

Having experienced the chaos and the national security risks involved in irregular mass migration first hand, there has been overwhelming support for the border fence in Hungary and in the other V4 countries that also participate in the operation and control of the border barrier.9 As The New York Times notes, “Mr Orbán’s tougher new policy has taken the migratory pressure off his European Union partners, while allowing them to condemn him anyway”.10 Indeed, international criticism of the Orbán government’s border practices has remained strong in Western Europe.11 Hungarian Minister of the Interior, Sándor Pintér, emphasised “that a number of EU politicians have mixed up illegal migration and asylum policy”, and pointed out that in 2015–2016 “migrants have arrived in Hungary from some 104 countries crossing the green border illegally. There is no war or catastrophic situation in so many countries, therefore the arrival of so many people without any valid visas and bypassing legal routes has been unjustified.”12

But even though critics have kept reminding us that “given its history behind the Iron Curtain, Hungary should know better than to erect a fence”,13 they have also come to acknowledge the effectiveness of the Hungarian border fence.14 And strangely enough, the Hungarian border fence – which was partly inspired by the border fences between the US and Mexico and not at all by the Iron Curtain – is now sometimes used by the media as an example of a successful border barrier for the US. As The Washington Post noted, “Donald Trump may want a wall, but Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – a vocal fan of Trump’s immigration plan – has built one [and put up a] formidable migrant blockade, turning Hungary into a global model of how to prevent even the most determined asylum seeker from slipping through. One thing is relatively clear: Hungary’s migrant blockade seems to be working. From a peak of more than 13,000 migrants a day, Hungary has more or less snuffed out illegal migration.”15 In October 2017, the prototypes for the American border wall were unveiled in San Diego, California, but the final version, or combination of versions, and technologies applicable in the different types of terrain remain to be seen, as does the funding of the construction and the handling of privately owned land along the border, most importantly, in Texas.16

The international law enforcement profession has been supportive of border barriers due to their effectiveness in stemming the tide of unauthorised entries.17 Electronically enhanced fence walls, that is, smart fences have been particularly successful in Israel, Bulgaria and Hungary with illegal crossings dropping by 99 per cent right after construction.18 Everybody understands a wall. In addition, the significance of physical border barriers as supported by technology and personnel has been especially illustrated by the growing number of border breaches. From the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla to Hungary, Macedonia, Mexico and the US, illegal immigrants have stormed the borders more than 16 times between 2005 and 2018. These violent incidents with migrants throwing rocks at border agents and the authorities resorting to tear gas have underlined the need for border walls to avoid border wars. Massive illegal and forceful border crossing to outnumber border guards can easily spiral into major national security challenges and even international conflicts. The US saw the first such border breach committed by Mexican citizens at the San Ysidro border crossing in California on 17 November 2013. Then on 25 November 2018, on 4 December 2018 and on 1 January 2019, desperate Central American caravan migrants stormed the Tijuana–San Diego border three times.19 These incidents and the caravan phenomenon can make the case for the border wall, and can be used for justifying the declaration of a national emergency by President Trump on 15 February 2019 as a result of the lack of sufficient congressional funding of his construction plans.


Once construction of the US–Mexican border barrier begins in earnest, however, it will definitely contribute to the emergence of the era of global walls in our post-9/11 world, and it will speed up the construction of many more. But the Iron Curtain metaphor serves as a poor reference for this new era of global migration controls that the world has entered. The legacy of the Cold War may still be strong but our multipolar world of unprecedented degrees of globalisation moves to different drumbeats. Even though the setting up of border barriers may seem to contradict globalisation, they might as well be seen instead as the very products of the globalisation of securitisation, a multibillion dollar business with great potentials for job creation and the channelling and managing of human labour as that of products and services. The emergence of global walls will require new ways of tackling old problems while giving rise to new problems at the same time. But while for some border barriers are unacceptable as limitations of liberty and as threats to social peace and the rule of law, for others they are part of a new reality and are seen as hopefully temporary yet necessary evils in order to preserve social peace and the rule of law.

In line with the above, I suggest that the root of the fundamentally different assessments of border fences and the current European migrant crisis in the Eastern and Western parts of the EU can be partially found in their Iron Curtain-related experiences with migration and border controls. Western Europe saw continuous, but sporadic arrivals from behind the Iron Curtain. Escapees and refugees entered in very limited numbers since migration was kept under check by the very Iron Curtain itself. Their reception was a success story since the border-crossers were most often highly educated (academics, artists, professionals, university students) or skilled workers willing and eager to cooperate and integrate. Another contingent consisted of fellow ethnic groups (e.g. ethnic Germans) who arrived in an organised, controlled manner, ransomed by the mother country as part of bilateral agreements. The migration of both groups enjoyed the sympathy of the receiving society. Their positive reception and willingness to cooperate guaranteed that their integration would be successful, which led to the Western European tendency to view migration positively. The conclusion from this migration experience was that people did manage to defy the Iron Curtain and crossed the death strip despite the heavily guarded fence walls, so border fences and migration restrictions did not work!

Eastern Europe was largely closed to both immigration and emigration throughout the Cold War; even intraregional movement was limited. Instead of migration, Eastern Europeans experienced invasion and long-term occupation by the Soviets. Escapees were considered traitors by the ruling regimes and were severely punished if caught. The Iron Curtain was imposed upon them and it was perceived as a prison wall. Those few emigrants that left and foreign visitors that entered were looked upon as potential spies. In fact, international visitors were only allowed to move about in the under strictly controlled circumstances by reporting to the local police. All in all, the result was a negative view of migration. Since few managed to defy the Iron Curtain and leave, Eastern Europeans concluded that border fences and migration restrictions did work! The West may have prevailed finally, showing that people and ideas cannot be locked up behind fence walls, but in the Eastern European experience the Iron Curtain effectively did so along 4,220 miles (6,800 kilometres) for over 40 years. Yet perhaps the most significant experience and lesson from the Iron Curtain for Eastern Europeans was that it was taken down out of their own initiative, and that the spirit of freedom not only survived, but evolved further even behind “prison walls”. As a result, unlike in the West, Eastern Europeans do not feel threatened and limited by the border fences they set up themselves, out of their own volition, since they know walls are temporary, necessary evils until another era of better alternatives begins. And until then maybe the best way to look at the emerging global walls of migration is to make sure their gates open in both directions – of course, national security advisors might prefer the gates to be security revolving doors, security turnstiles or interlocks.

In my capacity as the organiser of the American Studies Guest Speaker Series at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, I hosted Gregory Shaffer, Supervisory Special Agent and FBI Legal Attaché in Central and Eastern Europe, in December 2012. To students’ and colleagues’ great surprise, the Attaché drew parallels between the national security significance of the southern US and Hungarian borders. As his audience was listening in disbelief, he pointed out the need for stepped-up immigration and border controls and border security on the Schengen borders of Hungary in order to safeguard the EU from the challenges posed by organised crime groups and terrorists that could take advantage of migrant routes and loosely-checked, irregular flows. The 2015–2016 experiences proved him right. His audience today would not consider the comparison between Hungarian and US borders exaggerated. In fact the majority in that audience would agree that the 24/7 guarded border fence has proved effective in stopping unauthorised entry and safeguarding the country behind it without tampering with legal cross-border movement in either direction. This is no Iron Curtain.

The question regarding the US border wall should not be framed as whether the Trump administration is going to build it but rather which sections are going to be scheduled for when, and which technologies fit best the different terrains. Since it has been an ongoing project spanning over all the different administrations of the past 25 years, it can only be expected to continue during and beyond the Trump administration. As architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne aptly expresses, the current wall prototypes,

[the] eight slabs and seven spaces-between-slabs […] enact, with surprising precision, the southern border wall that we already have and probably always will, the one we’re eternally displeased with and yet condemned to keep building. That what we’re producing is a strange hybrid of wall and tunnel, […] something that both frustrates and enables connection, that makes plain that a border is at once the place where we’re separated from another country and where we’re joined to it. A barrier made of alternating bands of substance and absence, aspiration and impossibility. Here wall, here no wall. Here something, here nothing. And on and on across the desert.20

The US–Mexican border wall has inspired many similar protective migrant walls – such as the Hungarian border fence – and will continue to serve as an example for similar rising walls around the globe contributing to the era of global walls in our globalised world. However, these fences and walls with their gates or revolving doors open to all types of legal cross-border movement at all times are not those of the Iron Curtain, and in our Global Era this Cold War metaphor should definitely be withdrawn from circulation on both sides of the Atlantic.

(This article is a modified and updated version of Éva Eszter Szabó, “Fence Walls: From the Iron Curtain to the US and Hungarian Border Barriers and the Emergence of Global Walls”. In: Walls, Material and Rhetorical. Past, Present, and Future. Guest-edited by Virginia R. Dominguez, Review of International American Studies, RIAS, Vol. 11, Spring–Summer, No. 1, 2018, 83–111, www.journals. 6385/5347.)


1 Note that the term “Eastern Europe” as used throughout this article is not a geographical, but a political and historical term. Since 1989 the nations of this region have returned to the pre-Cold War terminology of East Central Europe.

2 Leonid Bershidsky, “The Irony of Hungary’s Border Wall: This Cold War Survivor Should Know Better”., 18 June 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2017; Amy Rodgers and Annastiina Kallius, “Behind the Iron Fence: Why Hungary’s Anti-Migrant Fence Will Be a Disaster”. The World Post, 28 July 2015. Web. 21 Nov. 2017; Rick Lyman, “Bulgaria Puts Up a New Wall, But This One Keeps People Out”. The New York Times, 5 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 Jan. 2018; Vassela Sergueva, “Bulgaria’s New ‘Iron Curtain’ Keeping People Out, Not In”. Digital Journal, 23 March, 2016. Web. 12 Jan. 2018; “France: Hungary Refugee Fence Not Even Fit for Animals”. Al Jazeera, 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 2 May 2018.

3 Upon examining statistical data on asylum applications per month between 2013 and 2017, we find that the Hungarian world record at the time was soon outdone by Germany, itself reaching an all-time high of 92,105 in August of 2016. In comparison, the highest number of asylum applications per month in the US as of June 2016 was 11,050. See “Hungary Asylum Applications” and “Asylum Applications by Country”. Trading Economics, Dec. 2017. Web. 20 March 2018.

4 Immigration and Asylum Office Hungary, “Statistics, 2011–Nov. 2017”. 28 Nov. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2018; “Hungary Asylum Applications, 2013–2017”. Trading Economics, Dec. 2017. Web. 20 March 2018.

5 Szabolcs Janik, “Defending Europe. Enhanced Physical and Legal Securing of Hungary’s Borders”. Focusing on Hungary, Századvég Foundation, March 2017, 15–19. Web. 5 May 2018.

6 Several registered migrants were diagnosed with syphilis, hepatitis B and C, HIV, typhoid, paratyphoid fever, and tuberculosis. See “Hungary: Migrants Diagnosed with Infectious Diseases”. Medical Headlines, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 26 Nov. 2017.

7 Amie Gordon, “Seven of the Nine Jihadist Involved in the Paris Terror Attacks Entered Europe through Hungary by Pretending to Be Refugees”. The Daily Mail, Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 25 Nov. 2017.

8 Jack Montgomery, “Hungary Builds a Wall, Cuts Illegal Immigration by Over 99 Per Cent”. Breitbart London,, 16 Sept. 2017. Web. 16 Jan. 2018; for the statistical data see “Elfogott migránsok száma – dátum szerinti lekérdezés” [The number of arrested migrants and the dates of their capture]. Rendőrség, Dec. 2017. Web. 16 Jan. 2018; and “Hungary Asylum Applications”.

9 “Társadalmi konszenzus van a V4 országokban a migráció elutasítását illetően” [There is social consensus in V4 countries regarding the rejection of migration]. Nézőpont Intézet, 13 Dec. 2018. Web. 14 Feb. 2019; Ministry of Interior, “V4 to Set Up a Common Crisis Management Centre”. Kormá, 22 Nov. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2018.

10 Rick Lyman, “Already Unwelcoming, Hungary Now Detains Asylum Seekers”. The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2017. Web. 12 Dec. 2018.

11 Valerie Hopkins and Michael Peel, “Hungary Defends Anti-migrant Stance in Face of EU Action”. Financial Times, 19 July 2018. Web. 15 Jan. 2019.

12 Ministry of Interior, “V4 to Set up a Common Crisis Management Centre”.

13 Rodgers and Kallius.

14 Janik 16; Montgomery; Chris Perez, “Hungary Begins Building Second Portion of Its Border Wall”. New York Post, 27 Feb. 2017. Web. 12 Jan. 2018; Nahlah Ayed, “Walled World: Lessons from Europe’s Border Barriers”. CBC News, 18 Jan. 2019. Web. 10 Feb. 2019.

15 Anthony Faiola, “How Do You Stop Migrants? In Hungary, with ‘Border Hunters’”. The Washington Post, 1 Oct. 2016. Web. 10 Feb. 2019; also see Adam Shaw, “As Trump Makes Border Wall Pitch, Other Countries Say Theirs Work”., 1 Feb. 2019. Web. 10 Feb. 2019.

16 Ron Nixon, “Border Wall Prototypes Are Unveiled, but Trump’s Vision Still Faces Obstacles”. The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2017. Web. 9 Dec. 2017; Catherine E. Shoichet and Geneva Sands, “This Is How Much of the Border Wall Has Been Built So Far”., 19 Jan. 2019. Web. 5 May 2019; Brooke Singman and John Roberts, “Trump Declares Emergency on Border, Eyes $8B for Wall as He Plans to Sign Spending Package”., 15 Feb. 2019. Web. 15 Feb. 2019; Geneva Sands and Priscilla Alvarez, “The Trump Administration Still Hasn’t Gotten All the Land It Needs for Already Funded Wall Projects”., 15 Feb. 2019. Web. 15 Feb. 2019.

17 Julia Manchester, “Ex-Obama Border Patrol Chief Says It’s ‘Absolutely False’ to Say Walls Don’t Work”., Feb. 2019. Web. 15 Feb. 2019.

18 Charles Bybelezer and Terrance J. Mintner, “Israel’s Border Walls: A Case Study for Trump’s Mantra”. The Jerusalem Post, 18 Dec. 2018. Web. 28 Jan. 2019; Daniel Marulanda and James D. Agresti, “Evidence from Many Nations Confirms that Border Walls Stem the Tide of Illegal Immigration”. The Tennessee Star, 15 July 2018. Web. 28 Jan. 2019.

19 Maya Averbuch and Elisabeth Malkin, “Migrants in Tijuana Run to US Border, But Fall Back in Face of Tear Gas”. The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2018. Web. 28 Jan. 2019.

20 Christopher Hawthorne, “Trump’s Border Wall through the Eyes of an Architecture Critic”. Los Angeles Times, 30 Dec. 2017. Web. 15 Jan. 2018.

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