This report focuses on cities, towns, and informal settlements around conflict-affected national borders, and the flows of people, goods, and ideas through them. These border settlements and the trade that sustains them are vital aspects of conflict and contested politics in frontier areas across much of the world.

The XCEPT program is premised on the understanding that many border regions are heavily affected by long-term conflict and instability, yet the ongoing dynamics and their implications often remain poorly understood and inadequately integrated into policymaking. XCEPT also sees border zones as the site for competing attempts at state-building and the regional ordering of states.

This report provides clear and practicable examples of the various conflict dynamics observable in border towns and markets. While its chapters cover prominent case studies from the borders of Afghanistan–Pakistan, Myanmar–Thailand, South Sudan–Ethiopia, South Sudan–Sudan, Syria–Turkey, and the Yemen–maritime border, the introductory overview also seeks to provide a rapid grounding of the approach and concepts that underpin the research. The case studies then highlight how political contestation, economic competition or social change in fragile and conflict-affected states can be observed and better understood.

The prescriptive take on conflict-affected border regions (or ‘borderlands’), commonly held at the national level and particularly so in capital cities, is that they remain unruly given persistent local attempts to exploit gaps in authority and to resist the government’s efforts to impose much-needed order. Governments are often also keen to blame neighboring countries for using restless and ungoverned peripheries to undermine exclusive claims to authority.

The case studies in this report also indicate that, in addition to the state authorities and nonstate groups struggling to impose or resist authority, there is a third autonomous force at play which is often overlooked. This is the globalized economy, or more abstractly, market forces. These case studies show that conflict, insecurity, and overlapping authority in the borderlands are partly a result of struggles to harness or exploit these market forces, whether as goods, labor, resources, or even as ideas or ideologies.

These contested border zones are uncomfortable territory for policy and programming on the part of national governments, governments of neighboring countries, regional and global organizations, and among western democracies. In the post-9/11 world, in particular, border zones where the state presence is light and contested, if existing at all, are perceived as a worrisome ungoverned space.

The concerns over ungoverned border spaces have further deepened with surges in illegal or informal migration, and lively flows of contraband commerce including drugs and arms. These spaces are also where insecure transnational and sometimes transient communities, including refugees and the internally displaced, are found. Such groups are often denied political voice, find their rights undermined, and in many cases require humanitarian assistance. For several decades these areas have also been seen as access points for humanitarian corridors.

For the international community, border zones represent a nexus of conflicting security, development, and humanitarian concerns. There is a clear need to understand how particular cross-border political economies actually function in these areas, and the relative risk and opportunities attendant to them. Once the nuances are grasped, then evidence-based peacebuilding and humanitarian interventions become viable. In particular, it remains vital to see these areas for what they are, rather than as an aberration according to conventional notions of state order.