Is the Falkland Islands’ Referendum a Farce or a Landmark Moment?

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Coast of Stanley in Falkland Islands, March 11, 2013.

When asked about her identity, Laura Jayne Minto Ceballos, a 19-year-old Falkland Islander studying in the U.K., has a less than straightforward answer. Her father’s family hails from Scotland and her Chilean mother was born in Argentina. “But when it comes to talking about the Falklands,” she says, “I am definitely British.” It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by her fellow islanders in the March 10-11 referendum that asked them a simple question: whether they wish to remain an overseas territory of the U.K.

It was never in doubt how the islanders would respond – bookmakers in Britain referred to it as “the biggest certainty in political betting history”—but like the Falklands conflict in 1982, when Argentina and the U.K. went to war over the archipelago, the outcome of the referendum won’t settle a bitter sovereignty dispute between London and Buenos Aires. For Ceballos and many of her compatriots, that perhaps misses a wider point: “I think we are finally getting our voices heard and finally making a momentous stand for ourselves.”

Geopolitical tensions flared up last year—the 30th anniversary of the 1982 conflict—when politicians in both the U.K. and Argentina rehashed the same arguments about who is the rightful owner of the islands, which the Argentinians call Las Malvinas. In a bid to settle the matter, the U.K. proposed a referendum to ask the 1,672 individuals eligible to vote (there are fewer than 3,000 people on the archipelago) whether they would like to remain British. Argentina dismissed it outright as a rigged ballot, arguing that the vote essentially asks a group of British settlers if they wish to remain British.

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So far in the dispute, the Falkland Islanders themselves have played a minor role. The U.K. is responsible for the territory’s foreign policy and defense, and Argentina refuses in any case to deal directly with them, a state of affairs that has caused great frustration among the islanders. “You could say we feel like the duck in the basket in the traditional gaucho game of ‘pato’,” wrote John Fowler, deputy editor of the Penguin News, in a column for the archipelago’s weekly paper last year. “This poor creature used to end up belonging to one side or the other, but was likely to be battered to death in the process.”

Outnumbered by sheep, the islands’ population comprises descendants of settlers and immigrants–from Britain mainly, but also a mix of South Americans and itinerant workers from as far as Russia. In the latest census conducted in 2012, 59% of residents identified themselves as Falkland Islanders and 29% as British, though 70% are descended from British Isles. The discovery of offshore oil fields, which could add billions of dollars of wealth, is bound to attract more migrant workers.

In an editorial in the run up to the referendum, the English-language Buenos Aires Herald observed how the voting requirements, which disenfranchised some British arrivals over Chilean and even Argentinean residents, are a telling sign of how the identity-politics of the islands could shift:

Behind this vote to be British is thus the reality of a population which increasingly is not so much “implanted” as globalized and being a British overseas territory might well be a transitional phase towards finding its own place in the world.

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Arguably, the Falkland Islanders increasingly see themselves as part of an autonomous nation. Ceballos, like many islanders in her age group who wish to pursue further studies, had her education in the U.K. paid for by the Falkland Islands government, which is self-financing. There is no requirement that they repay their country by returning to work in the remote South Atlantic—indeed, they actively encourage their young people to work abroad, says Jan Cheek, a member of the Falkland Islands legislative assembly.

It appears to be an investment that is paying off, or at least engendering a sense of loyalty among young people. Sonia Arkhipkina, another Falkland Islander studying Medicine at the University of Leeds, believes her generation does owe a debt: “I believe I have a sense of duty to return and one day give back to the Falkland Islands what they have given me – hopefully as a doctor,” she says.

Another issue for the islands to contend with is an increasingly aging population—the number of residents aged over 65 rose 14% in the last six years—which could force the government to reconsider its strict immigration policies.

In the immediate future, the Falkland Islanders can take small comfort in the fact that their right to self-determination has been settled. For both Prime Minister David Cameron and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner—who faces mid-term congressional elections in October—the diplomatic dispute serves as a useful distraction from their own domestic troubles. What is certain though is that once offshore oil production commences in 2017 and the stakes for control are higher, the debate is likely to take an uglier turn.