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).

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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.

There's the attraction of money, of course—the islands have a higher GDP-per-capita than Germany—but the immigrants also form a kind of Dark Side of the Moon Club of the desperate, nostalgic, adventurous, or just plain bored. After arriving, many get addicted to Stanley's Truman Show small-town perfection and find it impossible to move back to mean city streets—or merely to busy suburbs. The work day runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour for lunch, invariably taken at home. Phone numbers are only five digits long. And the idea of locking, well, anything is an affront to the community. In such an environment, the current population boomlet (about 400 people have moved to the islands in the last decade) can seem menacing. "I hope they don't find oil. We're already becoming little Britain," says Helen Wallace, a police department criminal-records officer who arrived from Portsmouth, England, in even more bucolic 1991. The threat of urban anonymity does not appear imminent, however: After several days on the islands, my introductions were invariably answered with, "Oh, right! The reporter staying at Arlette's place."

A war souvenir in a Stanley driveway. Click image to expand.
A war souvenir in a Stanley driveway

"Stories about coming here are always complicated," says Julie Halliday, who arrived from New Zealand in 2001. Halliday came to the islands when her then-husband was hired to be the economic adviser to the government. Following her divorce, she decided to stay for the tranquility (and for the birds she photographs), and today—after a remarriage to a Kelper—she runs Studio 52, Stanley's only graphic-design shop. In 2001, Sebastián Socodo moved from his native Argentina to the islands with his wife, a Kelper who grew up in his country (as many did before the war), to get away from a low-paying paper-mill job just as Argentina's economy began to implode. Today, he's a construction foreman—and a tour guide for returning Argentine veterans. And Chris McLean, burnt out on an urban schedule, brought his wife and two kids from Montreal in 2007 after his wife found an Internet job listing for a Public Works Department design engineer." After getting a call from a recruiter who said I'd been shortlisted, I had a 30-minute call with my boss here, and that was it. Within three months of sending a résumé, we'd sold our house and moved," he says in the soft monotone of someone who really likes quiet. "The kids have so much freedom, because everybody looks out for them."

Not everyone is aiming to create an island version of Little House on the Prairie, though. Valdimir Laptikhovsky, for example, loves fish. After finding his skills as a fishery scientist in little demand in his home of Kaliningrad after the Russian fishing fleet started to collapse, the ingenuously enthusiastic biologist moved to the islands in 2004 for a job in the Falklands' Fisheries Department. There, he compiles fish statistics, assesses the marine stock, and monitors the squid fishery, which provides the largest chunk of the islands' income. "There are places with better climates and more access to civilization, but I would never have such scientific freedom. You should have 300 scientists in such an ecosystem. We only have seven, so there's no competition for scientific materials," he says. Behind us, Laptikhovsky's second wife—his first one, unhappy on the islands, moved with their two children to nearby Chile—applies extensions to an islander's nails. In Russia, she'd been an assistant to an insurance company director, "always with a cell phone in her hand, so she could be available for people who had had car crashes."

In his clandestine Falklands-filmed movie Fuckland, Argentine director José Luis Marqués fantasized about retaking the islands by impregnating local women. Similarly, Buenos Aires-based Ezequiel Gatti, who leads Argentine veterans on Falklands tours, told me that Argentina would have had better luck conquering the islands in 1982 if it had sent several boats of beautiful Argentine women. Judging from the continued flow of immigration, however, Argentina's chance of conquering desperate islanders by procreative means seems to have passed. Victoria Guisande came from Punta Arenas, Chile, in January 2009 to work as a meatpacker in the local slaughterhouse, where she could earn 10 times the Chilean minimum wage. "I've already met an Englishman who's been here nine years, and he's asked me to marry him. We want a baby. My son is 19 years old, and I only have a little time to have another one. It was always my dream to have a daughter," says Guisande. "I think this place was my destiny."

Ian Mount is a journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Food & Wine, New York, Monocle, and other publications.

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