Challenge is to make your country attractive, so that it can compete with other places,” says Hans Pauli Strøm, sociologist at Statistics Faroe Islands.

By Søren Ditlev Monrad

Contrary to Greenland, the Faroe Islands have turned a decline in their population to an increase in just under four years. For the first time in the country’s history, there are more than 50,000 residents on the islands. The population on the 18 islands in the Danish Realm has waxed and waned over the past decades.

In the 70s and 80s, the population grew and immigration exceeded emigration. However, when the country went bankrupt in the late 80s and early 90s, Faroe Islanders escaped from unemployment and financial collapse in droves. Between 1989 and 1995, there was a net outflow of 7,200 people from the Faroe Islands, whose total population was a mere 47,000.

In Tórshavn’s Argir district sits sociologist Hans Pauli Strøm at Statistics Faroe Islands. I meet him behind the doors of a shiny, black building. His words flow in a torrent as he tells me all about immigration and emigration in the Faroe Islands over the past fifty years or so.

The economic trend in the country was positive from 2000 onwards, but then came the credit crunch, which gave the business sector a massive slap in the face. This resulted in a further drain on the population from 2008 to the end of 2013. In 2012, ‘Exit Faroe Islands’ was published. This book is about the outward flow of women, in particular, from the islands.

“There was no development potential for young people in the Faroe Islands at that time, neither in terms of education nor in terms of jobs. We’d entered a vicious circle where each bad thing was followed by something worse. Young people didn’t only leave because they had to, they left because their friends did, too. No-one wanted to go to an uninteresting Faroese university or to be in a country where they found themselves with fewer and fewer friends because they’d moved away – primarily to Denmark,” Hans Pauli Strøm explains.

In late 2013, the negative trend in the Faroe Islands reversed. As is often the case, several positive things occurred at once. The country experienced explosive growth in the pelagic fishing industry. Fish breeding developed from a minor industry into an industry that, today, counts for half of all fish exports. Oil prices are low, interest rates are low and the construction industry is booming.

“There’s no single explanation for the good times we’re experiencing now. There are lots of reasons. When the trends are positive, everything is interconnected, because, obviously, we’re a micro-society. Whether things are good or bad, they permeate our entire society – not just one small corner, one industry or one district. One thing leads to another,” says Hans Pauli Strøm.

In 2013, the Faroese Home Government launched an action plan aimed at halting emigration and creating population growth. Political initiatives in the Faroe Islands include increasing educational opportunities in the country, and improving social policy and job opportunities to encourage more Faroe Islanders to stay at home and to show those who have moved away that it is a good idea to move back.

Hans Pauli Strøm explains that it is obvious that a country needs to retain women of childbearing age to increase the population:

“The university took on a key role in this context. Political initiatives contribute to the same demographic process, encouraging women to remain in the country. The Faroe Islands have spent political capital and lots of money on increasing educational opportunities. We need to be able to offer adequate degree programmes and medium-cycle education programmes, and today you can train to be a nurse, social worker or teacher or take a technical qualification in the Faroe Islands. This is the first requirement. In addition, it’s much easier for single parents to get social benefits, so it’s financially possible for young people with children to study. At the same time, unemployment is down to 2%, and it’s not only this low because there are more jobs in the fishing industry. There’s explosive growth in the jobs that require high and tertiary-level education,” says Hans Pauli Strøm.

Faroese advantages

In the centre of Tórshavn, I meet Eyðun Christiansen. He is director of Kommunufelagið, the Faroese association of municipalities.

In 2013 and 2014, the association of municipalities, Industriens Hus in the Faroe Islands and an advertising agency ran a campaign focusing on success stories in the country. The campaign was given the title: ‘We choose the Faroes’.

“We thought there was far too much focus on problems. We who live here weren’t always able to identify with the way the Faroe Islands were depicted. It gave the country an annoying image. We felt that the rhetoric focused solely on the impossible and this vicious circle was the very reason why people couldn’t be bothered to move back to the islands. We wanted to make the rhetoric positive rather than negative,” Eyðun Christiansen explains.

Eyðun Christiansen mentions social ties to family, a boost to culture and gastronomy, good opportunities for moving up the career ladder, well-run daycare centres, unique nature, low crime rates and safe surroundings for children to grow up in as some of the issues ‘We choose the Faroes’ helped highlight. The campaign was primarily run on social media during the two years.

“The educational opportunities in the Faroes has grown, and this has had a very positive impact. It’s easy to be old and conservative in a society with a shortage of young people. We tried to get back to our roots. We mustn’t try to sell Tórshavn as a metropolis competing with Copenhagen – we’re bound to lose that battle. A similar campaign in Greenland should focus on the advantages of Greenland. So the relationship between the Faroe Islands and Scandinavia is rather similar to the relationship between Greenland and Scandinavia. Scandinavia is the ‘Promised Land’ and their societies are modern, and this image is very difficult to shift – particularly in the minds of the young. The campaign changed the dialogue and helped us turn things around,” says Eyðun Christiansen.

A safe haven

One of the Faroe Islanders who has returned is Elisabeth F. Rasmussen. She is a law graduate and works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the centre of the capital’s old town, Tinganes. The Faroese central government has been situated here for centuries.

She studied in Copenhagen with brief periods in London and Brussels. She moved back to Tórshavn with her Faroese boyfriend when she was pregnant. Today, her son is three years old and he will soon have a little brother or sister.

“One of the most important things for me was the opportunity for a good job. And, since I have a Faroese boyfriend, it was an obvious move to return. I started working at the Ministry of Finance when I got back. The assignments were inspiring and the job was very challenging. I was soon given lots of responsibility, compared with what I was given in Denmark. Another reason why I moved back was that I have a large family, and nearly all of them live here. It’s always at the back of your mind that Tórshavn is a safe haven. Lots of things are easier, more convenient and more pleasant when your family is close by,” says Elisabeth F. Rasmussen.

What’s the best thing about the Faroe Islands?

“That everything’s close at hand, and I can walk from home to work in ten minutes. I can walk to the kindergarten and most things are within a 500-metre radius. It’s fantastic. To a certain extent, this is possible in Copenhagen, too. But here, we have a house right in the middle of town. I really appreciate that.

The children will grow up close to nature and will discover that each season has different activities, such as sheep slaughtering in the autumn and growing potatoes. I always thought that was wonderful.”

Elisabeth F. Rasmussen at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Newborn Faroe Islanders

After I returned to Greenland from my visit to the Faroes, I called Annika Olsen (Fólkaflokkurin, or the People’s Party), Mayor of Tórshavn Municipality. The Mayor is also delighted to note the growth in the number of inhabitants, particularly in the capital. The population is growing here in particular because more babies are being born in the capital than before.

“More children are being born, and there’s an increase in net inflow of residents. Numbers are the highest ever, with more than 21,000 people in Tórshavn Municipality.  Of course, it’s a positive thing: the more people who live in the municipality, the greater the potential for tax income and for developing the city. We’re able to attract young families because we have a good family policy. You get a sibling discount so that, for instance, if you have three children in daycare, you only pay for one child. This alone is an incentive for families to have more children. We also have one of the country’s highest child allowances. These are some of the initiatives we’ve launched to increase the number of births, and the trend is positive compared to the numbers for last year,” says Mayor Annika Olsen.

On average, Faroese women have 2.5 children. This makes the fertility rate on the Faroes the highest in Europe. Therefore, it goes without saying that the population will grow if, at the same time, fewer people leave the islands. As in the rest of the world, the capital benefits most from the increase in the population. Sociologist Hans Pauli Strøm confirms Mayor Olsen’s optimism.

“Tórshavn will set the trend. The way things go in Tórshavn will affect the way things go in the rest of the country. There’s a trickle-down effect. This is the reality – this is how much a capital matters. Particularly a capital as significant as Tórshavn. Tórshavn has a combination of social intimacy and sense of community,” Hans Pauli Strøm explains. He also mentions a growing cultural and music scene, and a boost to restaurant and café trade in the capital. Faroese gastronomy was recently awarded the country’s first Michelin star.

Education, jobs, culture and housing

The population is growing in Nuuk but declining in Greenland as a whole. When the sociologist looks at Greenland’s declining population and compares it with the growth in the Faroes, he believes that there are several things that need to fall into place.

“I don’t believe that political initiatives alone will buck the trend. You have to catch a cyclical wave, take advantage of it and try to work together to identify the currents. Of course, they could draw inspiration for campaigns from the Faroe Islands. But the first thing that’s needed to reverse the negative trend in the population figures is to provide sufficient educational programmes, not merely degree programmes but technical training programmes and upper secondary schools. The challenge is to create a well-run university or educational opportunities with medium-cycle programmes such as nursing, social work and teaching. If the programmes on offer don’t cover the entire educational range, they won’t succeed,” says Hans Pauli Strøm.

“Before the Faroe Islands managed to reverse the trend, islanders also left because the Faroe Islands wasn’t attractive enough. The first challenge is to make your country attractive, so that it can compete with other places. This requires educational programmes, job opportunities and cultural facilities. Today, everyone in the country is aware that we’re part of something unique.”

Tórshavn Municipality’s Mayor, Annika Olsen, knows that the capital needs to develop if it is to keep abreast of the population growth:

“Our first priority is to meet our residents’ demand for housing. At the moment, they’re primarily interested in rental accommodation. Around 1,400 homes will be ready to move into in Tórshavn within the next two to three years. Building is actually going on everywhere, in both the private and the public sectors. We don’t want to find that people who want to live in the Faroe Islands leave again because they can’t put a roof over their heads. It’s important that we tackle this right.”