Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

The Quest for No Man’s Land

By Noam Lesham, Durham University, UK, and Alasdair Pinkerton, Royal Holloway University of London, UK. 

A migrant camp on the Slovenia-Croatia border, September 2015. Photographer: Elliot Graves, FOXEP
A migrant camp on the Slovenia-Croatia border, September 2015. Photographer: Elliot Graves, FOXEP

Recent news reports of new ‘no man’s lands’ emerging across Europe conjure an image of migrants trapped in places that are considered to be somehow “in between”. Typically that means in between hastily erected border fences, such as those that have suddenly appeared on the Hungarian borders with Croatia, Serbia and Austria, or at reinstated border posts between Schengen-area countries.

This re-emergence of ‘no-man’s land’ in the popular vocabulary is just its latest incarnation. In Western cultural memory, ‘no-man’s land’ traditionally invokes the killing fields of the First World War. Disseminated and popularised through journalistic accounts from the Western Front, the no-man’s land became known as the ultimate locus of physical and corporeal destruction. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, no man’s lands have been associated with anywhere from “ungovernable territories” and the spatio-legal limbos of the ‘war on terror’, to plighted deindustrialised urban boroughs in North America.

This growing proliferation prompted us to ask the seemingly simple question that lies at the heart of our paper published by Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: What is no-man’s land? The answers to this question seem intuitively obvious, yet bewilderingly broad.

At its core, our article sets out to rethink the significance of no man’s lands to the political and social challenges of the present. Revisiting over 1000 of the term’s history, we focus attention on the realities of life for individuals and communities who live, work in or travel through these space. Rather than empty sites or “dead zones”, we argue that no man’s lands are living spaces. While the withdrawal of traditional forms of power often results in material dilapidation and heightened vulnerability of populations, we find that no man’s lands often become sites of political activity and cultural creativity.

We recently completed a 6,000 mile journey in search of no-man’s lands past and present. This took us from the mediaeval Nomansland in Herefordshire, through the French villages decimated in WWI, the route of the Iron Curtain and the Cypriot Buffer Zone. We were hoping to reach Bir Tawil on the Egypt-Sudan border, the last unclaimed territory on earth, but this never transpired.

As we were crossing Europe, the Schengen Agreement was coming under immense pressure with old borders reinstated almost overnight. It was then that the media use of no man’s land began proliferating. However, the new no-man’s lands of Europe may be opening up along the lines of national borders, but also in spaces hundreds of miles from Europe’s ‘edges’. Pedestrian underpasses, train platforms, and even train carriages can and have become, however briefly, sites of restriction, enclosure and abandonment.

Second, these no-man’s lands are highly dynamic – they migrate, they move, they materialise and de-materialise with startling rapidity in response to shifting political decisions (perhaps especially so when there are differential political decisions across borders), police activity or the presence of NGOs and international humanitarian activity.

Rethinking no-man’s lands in the 21st century is a key challenge that will require a more rigorous engagement from historians, geographers and political scientists. At the same time, and as we are reminded daily, this is also task with concrete policy implications, one with immense social and political stakes.

About the authors: Noam Lesham is a lecturer in the Department of Geography at Durham University and Alasdair Pinkerton is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more about the Into no man’s land expedition, co-led by Noam and Alasdair, at  .

60-world2 Aronson G 2015 Egypt threatened by ‘ungoverned space’ on Libyan border AL-Monitor

60-world2 BBC 2015 Migrant crisis: Trapped in no-man’s land at the Croatia/Serbia border

books_icon Leshem, N. and Pinkerton, A. (2015), Re-inhabiting no-man’s land: genealogies, political life and critical agendas. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12102

60-world2 Raven B 2014 No man’s land: Unwanted land piles up in Jackson County  M Live Media Group

60-world2 Iyengar R 2015 Hungary reopens Budapest train station to stranded refugees after two days Time 

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