The Most Complex International Borders in the World

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The international border between two countries defines where one country ends and another begins. This is something that should be incredibly simple, but often isn’t. International borders come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some are simply an imaginary line in the middle of a street, while others are… much more clearly defined… and some are even guarded 24/7.

But before we begin, I need to quickly define a couple of terms. Enclave and exclave. An enclave is a country, or part of a country, that is entirely surrounded by another country, while an exclave is part of a country that is geographically separated from the rest of the country. In this example, Country A is an enclave of Country B because it’s totally surrounded by it. In this next example, Y is an exclave of Country A. Exclaves aren’t necessarily always enclaves too, either because they have more than one border, or they have a coastline… or both. In this final example. X is both an enclave and an exclave. It’s an enclave of Country B and an exclave of Country A.

There are three countries in the world that are enclaved by another country. The first of which is the Vatican City. Home of the Pope and the smallest country in the world, which is an enclave of Italy. And Italy apparently loves enclaves because it also has the country and San Marino enclaved within its borders.

But if that’s not enough to convince you Italy loves enclaves then take a look at Campione d’Italia. An Italian exclave which is an enclave within Switzerland. This tiny municipality, home to 2,000 Italians, uses the Swiss Franc as its currency and is exempt from EU VAT. A fact which is greatly taken advantage of in the form of Europe’s largest casino. So… Italy is a country that has not one, but two countries within its borders. And part of it is enclaved within another country.

The final, and by far the largest, enclaved country in the world is Lesotho, with a population of just over 2 million, is surrounded by South Africa. To put the size difference into perspective, here’s a comparison between San Marino and Vatican City… and now here’s Lesotho. Lesotho is 70,000 times the size of Vatican City.

Now, a country within a country is all very well and good, but it’s not exactly that complex, so let’s take things up a notch. We’ve looked at enclaves, now let’s look at enclaves within enclaves. Also known as counter-enclaves or 2nd-order enclaves. I’m not talking about Country A within Country B within Country C. No. While that would be an enclave within an enclave there are no examples of that in the world. I’m talking about Country A within Country B within Country A. Once again, there are three examples. The least complex of which is in the Middle East and border between the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Here we can see a United Arab Emirates exclave, which is enclave of an Omani exclave… which is itself an enclave of the United Arab Emirates… And this is the least complex example…

Next me move over to Europe where start to get a bit ridiculous with the border between the Netherlands and Belgium in the interlocking municipalities of Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog, which looks a little something… like this…

In total there’s 22 Belgian enclaves and 8 Dutch enclaves (7 of which are counter-enclaves). But these aren’t just imaginary lines. Every, single, inch of the border within the town is clearly marked letting you know which country you’re in. And the border passes through just about anything. It passes through streets, so next-door neighbors may not be living in the same country as each other. House numbers clearly indicate which country the residents are living in; It also passes through shops, where you might select your items in one country and pay for them in another.

Restaurants and cafes, where different tables are in different countries, Car parks, making it possible to legally park in 2 countries at the same time And even… people’s houses. Some residents of Baarle wake up in the Netherlands and make their breakfast in Belgium. But which country do they live in if the border passes right through their house? Well, the answer is very simple: wherever your front door is, that’s what country you live in.

Well, it’s simple unless you live in this house, in which the border passes directly through the front door. This is the only house that’s part of both countries. It has two doorbells, one for each country, and two house numbers because it has 2 addresses. Before 1995, the borders weren’t marked, and were left vague.

This caused an unfortunate situation for a Belgian man living in Belgium… or so he thought… but in 1995 when the border was accurately marked, it revealed that he was actually living in the Netherlands, not Belgium. Legally, at this point, he would have to change his address over to the Netherlands, but unwilling to go through the bureaucratic nightmare of having to change which country he pays taxes to, and change which company provides his utilities, he decided against it. He decided instead… to move his front door. Genius!

Living in Baarle might sound like a bit of a nightmare, but it isn’t really. Because both countries are part of the EU’s Schengen Area, borders are completely open, allowing free travel between the countries. And since 2002, both countries use the Euro, and there’s also no language barrier since Dutch is the official language of northern Belgium.

But just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get more complicated, wait until you see the enclave complex between India and Bangladesh. This single border alone comprises 80% of the world’s enclaves, with 106 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 92 enclaves of Bangladesh within India. And of the combined 198 enclaves, 24 of them are 2nd-order enclaves. And this border also has the world’s only… 3rd-order enclave. That’s right, an enclave, within an enclave… within an enclave. That is… part of India, inside part of Bangladesh, inside part of India which is inside Bangladesh…

But ridiculous as this is, unfortunately it’s actually a very serious issue, and completely different from the situation in Europe. India and Bangladesh don’t have open borders, so for the 50,000 people living in the enclaves, they’re basically trapped. Their governments don’t provide anything for them, so they don’t have access to basic life essentials, such as: running water, electricity, or gas. There’s also no schools or hospitals in the enclaves, and the emergency services won’t cross any borders so crime is extremely prevalent.

In 2011, the governments of both countries agreed to try to sort out the enclaves by swapping land, but more than two years later and still nothing has changed. However, some small progress has been made. The Tin Bigha Corridor, a narrow strip or Indian land separating the largest Bangladesh enclave from the mainland, has been leased to them by the Indian government, allowing residents to travel to the mainland. Although on saying that, this was first proposed back in 1974 and took nearly 40 years to come to an agreement.

Moving away from enclaves now and onto the land that no one wants which is in the African desert between Egypt and Sudan. Where exactly the border is however, is debatable. If you ask Egypt, they’ll tell it’s here, but if you ask Sudan, they’ll tell you it’s here. The overlapping border claims create two areas of land, and both countries claim the same land – the Hala’ib Triangle. Leaving the adjacent land unclaimed by both countries. Neither country can claim the land known as Bir Tawil as they would have to give up their claim to the much more desirable land.

If we compare the two pieces of land… the Hala’ib Triangle is 10 times bigger, has access to the Red Sea and has several settlements and small villages, where Bir Tawil is landlocked and completely uninhabited. The origin of the dispute dates back to 1899, before Sudan was an independent country, and was a condominium between the United Kingdom and Egypt known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The border was set at the 22nd parallel.

Then, 3 years later, the British drew a new line which they called the ‘Administrative boundary’, which better reflected the usage of the land. This was because of the Egyptian tribe that used the land south of the 22nd parallel, and the people living in the Hala’ib Triangle were culturally more closely related to that of the Sudanese population.

Therefore, in 1956, when Sudan became independent, they assumed the administrative boundary was the border, while Egypt assumed it was still the 22nd parallel. The Triangle is currently administered by Egypt, but most maps simply use dotted lines for the disputed border. Bir Tawil is the only unclaimed land outside of Antarctica and speaking of Antarctica, this is another place for complex borders. That’s right, even a continent with no government or permanent population has international borders. Well… kind of. They’re more claims to land than actual borders.

Parts of Antarctica are claimed by… the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, France, New Zealand, and this is where things get complicated… Chile and Argentina. The land to the Southwest is unclaimed. So, basically, there’s land claimed by 3 countries, and land that’s claimed by no countries at all.

The reason no one has claimed it is because of the Antarctica Treaty. Article 4 of said treaty states that “The treaty does not recognize, dispute, nor establish territorial sovereignty claims; no new claims shall be asserted while the treaty is in force.” The treaty is signed by 50 countries, including all the countries that have claims of land on the continent. Although Russia and the United States have reserved their right to claim land.

This means that any new claims made on the continent will be unrecognized, and basically that all current claimants have no official sovereignty over their claimed land. The final place to look at for complex borders is the island of Cyprus. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking Cyprus doesn’t have any complex borders… or, you know, any border for that matter. But Cyprus is an absolute minefield of border complexities.

The island is split roughly in half by the UN buffer zone which separates the Republic of Cyprus from the unrecognized, self-declared independent country of Northern Cyprus. And then there’s Sovereign Base Areas, under British control.

But the complications don’t end there, we’re back to enclaves and exclaves again with the Northern Cyprus exclave on the northwest coast of the island. And within the Eastern Sovereign Base Area of Dhekelia, there are 4 exclaves of Cyprus, 3 of which are also enclaves. 2 of which are so close they’re only separated by a British road.

And if we take a closer look right here, we can see the same again, a British road through Cyprus. And this is also the only part of the island not split by the UN buffer zone, the British road basically acts as the de facto international border.

But it’s not actually an international border because Northern Cyprus is considered occupied territory of the Republic of Cyprus and is almost totally unrecognized as a country. Only one UN member recognizes Northern Cyprus: Turkey. Which is unsurprising given that the official name of Northern Cyprus is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The cause of the border irregularities go back to before 1960 when the island of Cyprus was a British colony. Then, in 1960, when Cyprus gained independence, the United Kingdom kept the land around its RAF bases given their strategic location just off the Middle East. Then, in 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and took about 40% of their land. Barriers were built in the middle of the island, which is now guarded by UN peacekeeping forces. Then, in 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was established, and not much has changed since then.

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