Studying borders to understand nations

Profiles of Norwegian science

studying borders - Norway & Sweden

Photo: Ilan Kelman
The Norway-Sweden border at Svinesund follows a natural boundary.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Over 1,500 miles of fascination. Such is Norway’s land border with other countries: Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Just exceeding the length of Alaska’s land borders with Canada, and with a rich and varied history, Norway’s border offers exciting scientific opportunities.

Border studies and borderland studies do exactly what they say. They research the history, geography, cultures, politics, flows, environments, peoples, and interactions of borders and the regions near the borders. The borders might be international, such as Norway-Sweden. They could also be internal, between counties, municipalities, boroughs, or other jurisdictions.

Natural features create borders, whether or not mirrored by political lines. Rivers, mountain chains, escarpments, and ecosystem transitions all partition land. Research examines how these features divide and join people. A physical barrier can stop connections—leading to divergence of dialects and viewpoints—or can be accepted as an inspiring challenge, forging cultural links to overcome the cleft.

International borders are often seen as immovable blockades, cleaving people from each other while reinforcing differences of language, culture, and politics. They are labeled as separators, not links.

Plenty of these truths are evident. Border and borderland studies tell a complementary tale, pointing to as much human-related fluidity across international borders as is seen with animals, plants, the wind, and the water.

Yet Norway’s borders remain understudied. The current-day Norway-Russia line was established in 1944 with the Soviet Union when Finland was forced to give away Petsamo and its Arctic maritime access to the Soviets. As the Cold War set in, it became part of the Iron Curtain. Now, locals can apply for visa-free travel across the border. The Barents Sea boundary between the two countries remained disputed until a 2010 agreement.

Two sections of Finland jut into Norway, forming a wending border from Russia to Sweden. Fences stop reindeer from crossing between Norway and Finland as part of indigenous reindeer husbandry.

In 2016, Norway considered moving the border 40 meters inside Norway to gift Finland a new highest point for its centenary of independence. The plan was scuttled by legal technicalities based in Norway’s constitution.

Norway-Sweden is, by far, the lengthiest of Norway’s three international border sectors. Thousands commute across it daily or weekly. It played a notable part during World War II, with many Norwegians escaping German occupation of their country into neutral Sweden.

This border is subjected to extensive contemporary investigation, because it is almost entirely open despite Sweden being a European Union member in contrast to Norway. Parallels are being explored for Ireland and Northern Ireland as the UK attempts to leave the EU.

Simply describing Norway’s borders has led to deep, intriguing research questions about how the borders were formed and how they are managed. Many other quirks emerge.

A legal loophole permitted those fleeing Middle East conflict to enter Russia legally and then to cycle into Norway. Plans for a railway between Roveniemi, Finland, and Kirkenes, Norway, proceed as part of China’s initiative to create overland trade routes. Maintaining wolf and bear populations remains contentious in both Norway and Sweden with national decisions complicated by the border being meaningless to the animals.

Plus, Svalbard. This High Arctic archipelago is Norwegian territory. Citizens of all countries that have signed the 1920 Svalbard Treaty—46 countries including such unlikely partners as Chile, North Korea, and the Dominican Republic—can enter, purchase property in, reside in, conduct commercial activities around, and exploit resources from all the islands. Domestic flights between Svalbard and Oslo or Tromsø are subject to immigration and customs checks. It is like an international border within a sovereign country.

Norway’s border complications extend to the other pole. Seven countries including Norway make territorial claims in Antarctica. The treaties governing the continent neither recognize nor deny these claims. They are held in limbo while visitors can get their passports stamped and send themselves letters with territorial postmarks.

An agenda for Norway border and borderland studies spans the world. It relates to Amundsen winning the race to the South Pole and to decisions made by medieval Danish royalty. Sámi rights overlap with the agreements for the EU, Schengen, European Free Trade Association, European Economic Area, and Nordic Passport Convention.

A border might appear to be a simple demarcation between sovereign states. It opens up many pathways for better understanding Norway and what it means to be Norwegian.

This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.