Why do so many people move to the Falkland Islands?

Notes from different corners of the world.
May 9 2009 7:28 AM

A Small Place

Nearly half the Falkland Islanders are immigrants. What draws people to a grim chunk of rock in the South Atlantic?

Stanley's tourist dock, where daytrippers are ferried ashore. Click image to expand.
Stanley's tourist dock, where daytrippers are ferried ashore

STANLEY, Falkland Islands—It came as no surprise that the Stanley Arms pub served Cornish pasties and Strongbow Cider, or that the youngest of the three guys stooled up at the bar was complaining that Britain wasn't as it used to be—why, recently, an English lady he tried to help with her groceries practically slugged him, she was so scared of being mugged. After all, I was in Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, which are a kind of superdistillate of Englishness in the same way that, say, Baghdad's Green Zone is an über-U.S.A. as designed by Burger King. What was curious was that the bartender, K.J., was one of the 150 or so Saints who live on the Islands. Not saints of the religious variety, but African-descended immigrants from the tiny tropical island of St. Helena, a place most famous for being Napoleon's final prison exile. Oddly, considering the 1982 war that Britain fought with Argentina over the Falklands, K.J. was wearing the soccer jersey of Club Atlético Independiente, a premier league team based in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. He wasn't exactly the image of your typical English "Kelper," as islanders are known.

For decades, the Falkland Islands have been a mix of punch line and trivia question, its popular image that of a few hundred boozy, inbred sheep farmers living on a rock in the South Atlantic. During the so-called Falklands conflict, British troops memorably dubbed the locals "Bennies" after Benny Hawkins, the village-idiot character in the British soap opera Crossroads. And, indeed, after going for a run on my second day on the islands and finding myself held still by the famous driving winds, I wondered why a dimwitted penguin, much less a sentient human adult, would willingly move there. The word grim comes to mind: Besides sandpaper winds, the islands are blessed with a skin-frying ozone hole, a near complete lack of trees, and import-dependent stores where sad tomatoes fetch $4.15 a pound (about twice what FreshDirect charges in Manhattan).


But there they were: gaggles of immigrants. Every five years, the islands conduct a census with the Orwellian precision that is possible only on remote islands with a population of 2,478. Besides enumerating statistical curiosities—the number of dishwashers, for example, rose from 130 in 1996 to 338 a decade later—the census notes the surprising facts that only 53.2 percent of the 2006 population was born on the islands, and 25 languages other than English are spoken in Falkland homes. Among the immigrants are 650 U.K.-born residents, plenty of them Kelpers whose parents had moved to the United Kingdom to look for work and who themselves returned after the conflict. But there are also 153 Saints, 131 Chileans, 36 Australians, 26 New Zealanders, and a sprinkling of Germans, Russians, Indonesians, and Filipinos. Even an Argentine or two.

At the end of the war Argentine soldiers abandoned their weapons. Click image to expand.
At the end of the war Argentine soldiers abandoned their weapons

The 1982 conflict reminded the British government of the islands' existence. After the war, the government set up a ₤45 million reconstruction-and-development fund for the Falklands and declared the nearby fishing grounds and oil fields property of the islanders, which uncorked an economic boom that turned the Falklands into the polycultural economic beacon it is today. One British diplomat told me one of her colleagues jokes that the islanders should raise a monument to Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentine military dictator who had the brilliant idea of invading the islands to save his fading government, Wag the Dog-style.

The recent wave of immigration lends the islands the atmosphere of a South Seas Qatar, where foreign workers are imported to do the work that locals can't or won't (although, to the Falklands' credit, they offer a clear path to residency and British citizenship). Chileans and Saints work in restaurants and stores, Russians do marine research, an Englishman runs the tourist bureau, and the head of the local bank is from Indonesia. It's a weirdly exclusive group, given that if you want to stay, the only way to get through the British military air base at Mount Pleasant (the only access to the islands) is to have a pre-arranged job contract with a company that has signed a form of bond taking responsibility for you. With such a strict entry regime, unless you're a cruise-ship day-tripper or a birdwatcher who has flown in on holiday, the only way to be unemployed on the islands is to be a resident retiree or an unemployable, native-born drunk.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 2:44 PM Where Do I Start With Mystery Science Theater 3000?
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.