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What is an Enclave?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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In geography, an enclave is a country which is entirely enclosed by another nation. Most commonly, an enclave is also an exclave, meaning that it is actually the satellite of a larger mother state. Enclaves may be formed for a number of a reasons, but they often result in administrative and political issues, and attempts are frequently made to eliminate them. The term is also used to refer to a clustered religious or ethnic group within a larger one, as is the case with San Francisco's Chinatown.

The word comes from the Old French enclaver, which means “to enclose.” This word was derived from a Latin word, clavis, meaning “key.” Many enclaves were formed when official national boundaries were drawn, sometimes resulting in pockets of people of a different nationality trapped inside another country. This often led to political upheaval, as the people within the enclave could be cut off from their mother nation. In some cases, an enclave may be occupied by people with a different ethnic, religious, or political background from the surrounding country, which can lead to tensions.

Two of the most well known examples of an enclave are Lesotho, which is enclosed within the boundaries of the Republic of South Africa, and Vatican City, an independent entity inside Italy. West Berlin is a historic example of an enclave, since it was located entirely within East Germany. West Berlin is an excellent illustration of the most common type of enclave, which usually consists of a small village or town of a separate nationality located inside another country.

In many former colonies, enclaves exist in large numbers. India, for example, has over 80 Bangladeshi enclaves within its border. Several islands are also enclaves, since they are surrounded by the territorial waters of another nation. Many of these island enclaves were seized for political or military advantage, and the occupying nation is reluctant to cede the land.

When an enclave is an exclave, agreements are usually reached between the mother nation and the country which surrounds the exclave. These agreements ensure that the citizens of the enclave are not entirely cut off, and typically include measures to protect airspace and the ability to pass freely between borders. In some cases, the citizens of an enclave may lobby to be absorbed into the surrounding nation, especially if the enclave is small, and residents have adopted the language and culture of their neighbors.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon119335 — On Oct 17, 2010

No. San Marino is its own sovereign state. It is surrounded by Italy, just as much as Gambia may be surrounded by Senegal, or Lesotho by South Africa - but this condition does not detract from its own sovereign status.

By anon70695 — On Mar 15, 2010

is San Marino an enclave of Italy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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