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Knowing when to open doors

Building a wall can protect people, property, and cultures. Tearing a wall down can promote human progress.

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    MEXICAN CHILDREN PEER THROUGH A FENCE MARKING THE UNITED STATES BORDER WITH MEXICO.
    ANN HERMES/STAFF
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It is perhaps no longer shocking to hear that tens of thousands of people from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa are hazarding their way across Europe. Or that more than 6,000 migrants are now jammed into the sprawling shantytown known as “the Jungle” outside the French port of Calais, with another 100 to 150 arriving each day. Or that human traffickers are victimizing the vulnerable in North Africa, that lives are regularly being lost in the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean, or that border crossings in southeastern Europe are the scene of daily confrontations between desperate refugees and wary soldiers.

The epic refugee migration of 2015 has become so much a part of today’s landscape that it might by now seem that the crisis has passed. It hasn’t. The human flood is huge, ongoing, and packed with consequences that will take years to play out. For migrants, the big question is whether the risks they are taking for themselves and their families will bring safety and a fresh start on a continent that has not always welcomed strangers. For Europeans, the growing concern is about preserving culture and community as more and more immigrants crowd in. Strains on Europe’s sputtering economy, religious tensions as Muslim populations increase, fears of terrorism and of xenophobic backlash – the issues surrounding the refugee influx are serious and will not be resolved overnight.

Little surprise then that in the balance between openness and order, compassion and control, the mood in Europe is now shifting toward order and control. First in Hungary and soon, it appears, in the Balkans, and eventually in other parts of a Europe that once sought to be borderless, border fences and walls are likely to rise. And Europe is not alone. As a team of Monitor reporters explains (click here), border barriers are rising worldwide – from North America to East Africa, Morocco to China. 

It is easy to dismiss walls as selfish, the product of an I’ve-got-mine mentality. Robert Frost famously knocked them as unlovable, as fencing people in as much as out. But humans have always found walls and fences necessary. Primitive stockades fended off marauders. Mottes and baileys, moats and drawbridges, rivers and mountains – barriers let a community evolve on its own and grow without interference. Today’s gated subdivisions are more elaborate forms of protection than are locked front doors, but both have the same purpose.

So, yes, walls work. They preserve gardens, protect property, and keep children and pets from running into the street. Every nation is essentially a walled compound in which its own unique culture is able to thrive. That’s good. But it’s also good when a community opens itself to new and perhaps uncomfortable challenges. Unexpected possibilities arise. For both natives and immigrants, conflicts are inevitable. But when different cultures merge, the cuisine and the music improve; sciences, business, and the arts progress.

Communities are safe when their doors are shut. Humanity is better when its doors are open.

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