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Deadly Borders: Theories, Actors, Cases


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA International Relations. Students who are interested in taking this course, but who are not admitted to the mentioned master programmes are requested to contact the co-ordinator of studies.


According to globalizations theorists, state borders have increasingly lost their significance. The rise of identitarian movements and the humanitarian crises taking place at borders worldwide, however, show otherwise. Created to protect national communities from external threats, borders are both a cornerstone of national security and a threat to human security.

Over the last two decades, thousands of migrants have died while illegally crossing the external borders of the European Union and the United States. The smuggling of people, narcotics, and weapons across borders has allowed criminal organizations and violent non-state actors to amass wealth and political influence. Urged by public opinion to act against illegal immigration, transnational crime, and foreign fighters, states worldwide have strengthened their border security by relying on military and police forces, but also armed contractors and militias. Such arrangements, however, have often increased the lethality of illegal crossings, making borders even deadlier for migrants. To mitigate suffering, humanitarian NGOs have provided relief and rescue services at both land and maritime borders. Their work, however, is often criticized and criminalized as a catalyst of human smuggling and pull factor of migrations.

In order to provide a comprehensive overview of borders worldwide, this course is divided as follows:

  • The first part relies on existing theories to examine what borders are investigating the political, legal, and ethical underpinnings of border policies worldwide

  • The second part investigates who are the main actors crossing or operating at borders, most notably migrants, human smugglers, state border security forces, and NGOs

  • The third part maps where such policies and actors are deployed, conducting an in-depth examination of violent borders worldwide by examining case studies such as the Sahel region and Libya, the Mediterranean sea, the US-Mexico desert, Syria, and Israel. Students will be able to choose some additional violent borders to focus on (e.g. Myanmar, Nagorno Karabakh, India-Pakistan, North-South Korea)

Course Objectives

By the end of the course, students should be able to:

  • Understand the legal and ethical underpinnings and implications of border control on land and at sea

  • Assess the role played by state and non-state actors at different borders worldwide

  • Evaluate the effectiveness and implications of military, law enforcement, and humanitarian activities at the borders

  • (re-)appraise the role of borders in international politics


Via the website.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

280 hours (10 ECTS)

  • 24 hours of class attendance

  • 120 hours of readings

  • 30 hours of presentations and debates preparation

  • 26 hours for preparing research proposal

  • 80 hours for preparing final paper

Assessment Method

  • Participation and presentations: 30%
    As this is a seminar-based course rather than a series of lectures, we will work together on building the course content. Each student is therefore expected to actively participate in the class debates by relying on the knowledge acquired through the key readings.
    On each session, two students will deliver a presentation attempting to answer a key question related to the subject of the day. Students in need of further guidance are encouraged to meet me and discuss about the content of their presentation beforehand.

  • Research Proposal: 10%
    Students are expected to submit a short (1,500 words max) proposal explaining their final essay’s research question and providing a tentative outline and reference list. This assignment does not have a large impact on the final grade (10% only), and is primarily designed to help students in the writing of the final papers and make sure those meet the course requirements and can obtain a satisfactory final grade

  • Final paper: 60%
    Students’ final papers can focus on any of the subjects covered by the course, whether more theoretical or more empirical. This will provide students with the possibility to focus on the subject/area they are most interested in. A list of potential subjects will be provided on blackboard.
    Each paper will not exceed 4,000 words (references excluded).


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


Retake paper: Students who submitted a paper but failed the course can resubmit their final paper within three weeks after the grade has been released

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.


Blackboard will be used for this course.

Reading list



Via uSis.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Contact information

Dr. E. Cusumano