40 years of population change in West Norden

In the wake of the financial collapse Iceland has seen thousands of people emigrate. Even though this change in population development was quite dramatic it was not however unique in terms of the region as a whole. Across all of West Norden recent major political and economic phenomena, in addition to ongoing natural change processes, have had a significant influence on net migration rates.

Due to the small size of the domestic markets across the region, such phenomena can clearly be seen to have acted as either 'push' or 'pull' factors in terms of international migration rates where people are either moving (back) to regions in good times or 'voting with their feet' due to rapid and negative changes in their social conditions in bad times. As West Norden is characterised by natural resource dependency, and especially by dependence on fisheries, changes in fish stocks have historically affected migration rates.

When reviewing the last 40 years it can quickly be seen that in the 1970s and 1980s the net migration rate was rather modest, experiencing both net immigration and emigration. In 1973, for the first time in over 35 years, the Faroes experienced a positive net immigration. Some of the major factors in this change were the general increase in the standard of living, very low unemployment - especially compared to unemployment in Denmark, a rise in the number of jobs for women and particularly also in the fishing industry, better educational opportunities for young people, and rising demand for educated people. This precondition was supported in the Faroe Islands as early as 1965 when the University was founded.

Faroe fishing crisis

The main demographic crisis in the Faroe Islands is thus related to changes in the fisheries sector. During the 1970s successful skippers managed to accumulated capital and invested in new filleting plants, and thus a highly successful fisheries industry was established. This was however soon rocked by a marked decline in resources caused by a combination of over-fishing and environmental variation which led to a drastic decline in fish stocks off the Faroes.

At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s the fisheries sector not only collapsed (fish made up approximately 90% of exports), but, due to over-investment in new technologies, the major Faroese banks went bankrupt and foreign indebtedness rose sharply. Most of the fish processing plants were closed and the Faroese economy was placed directly under Danish administration.

Combined with rapidly increased unemployment up to as much as 20% in Tórshavn, and even higher in the outlying islands, and a growing international boycott of Faroese produce over the pilot whaling (grindadráp) issue, many people emigrated. Heavy emigration between 1989 and 1994 saw the population decline by 10%, from approximately 48 000 to 42 000 persons. Emigration was especially high among young people.
The measures used to get the Faroes 'up and running again' largely worked, and in 1996 net immigration was one again positive. The economically positive years thereafter kept net immigration positive until 2004. Since then migration has remained rather stable.

In Greenland, before Home Rule was established in 1979, the importation of workers from Denmark was often used to maintain a stable and viable workforce. While the 1950s and 1960s in Greenland were characterised by an influx from Denmark of short term labour connected to the building industry, a number of these people got married to Greenlanders leading eventually to the out-migration of both Danes and their Greenlandic spouses during the 1970s.

Home Rule 1979

With the establishment of Home Rule in 1979 Greenlanders took over many jobs leading to a massive increase in out-migration which, by the 1980s had the knock-on effect of a perceptible decline in the volume of international migration. Parallel to this, the establishment of attractive workplaces in Greenland has impacted on the migration pattern, as have major investments in education. This helped to reduce the emigration rate of native Greenlanders.

This shift in government change related migration saw a peak in Greenlandic net migration figures. The policy which oversaw native Greenlanders taking over those jobs previously held by former colonial power nationals turned out to be rather successful in the sense that only ten years after Home Rule was established net out-migration had ceased. Most of the jobs, however, were for men, so the migration pattern is highly gender and born-place oriented.

For the Greenland born population, a major share of emigrants are female, and the out-migration of younger people – primarily women – looking for educational and job opportunities has led to a continuous outflow since the beginning of the 1990s of both Greenlanders and Danes.

This has led to a situation where more than 18 000 Greenlanders (defined as persons born in Greenland) are now living in Denmark, compared to the total number of just below 50 000 actually living in Greenland.


Until recently the population development in Iceland had been rather stable. In the period 1986-2008 up to 79% of Icelandic citizens who migrated returned after an average stay of 2.4 years abroad. This pattern of short term employment and study period 'excursions' kept migration rates rather stable.

The diversification and liberalisation of the Icelandic economy after 1994, when Iceland joined the European Economic Area, can clearly be seen as being expressed in an increase in net immigration rates. In the period 2003-2007 Iceland developed from a nation best known for its fishing industry into a country providing sophisticated financial services. Due to the emergence of new business opportunities, beginning in 2004, a huge influx of persons came from abroad to Iceland, with 2005 and 2006 seeing recorded figures which were relatively higher than any other European country.

Part of this undoubtedly related to the building activities connected with the Alcoa aluminium smelter in eastern Iceland in 2004-2008, with a 1 500 -person foreign workforce, mostly from Poland. Iceland was hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, which extended into 2009. The crisis has resulted in the greatest migration from Iceland since 1887. In 2009, net emigration was around 5 000 persons, half of those being foreign citizens. However, between January and June 2010, the Icelandic population increased by approximately 400 persons.

Johanna Roto

GIS/Cartography Coordinator

Rasmus Ole Rasmussen

Senior Research Fellow