Crete is a remarkable island of outstanding natural beauty and vibrant traditional culture. I arrived there at the end of the tourist season, as the tavernas and hotels were preparing for hibernation. In Chania, a beautiful coastal town drenched in romantic colonial charm, a great black banner reading “Refugees Welcome” hung from the old Venetian castle overlooking the harbour. But none could be seen amidst the tapestry of designer shops and coffee bars. Still, their ghosts seemed to fill the streets and a sense of foreboding quickly entered most conversations on the topic.
When I told people my next stop was the island of Lesvos, eyebrows typically rose above hairlines. Many business owners said they feared tourists getting the “wrong impression” about Greece. When assured that I thought highly of their country and knew what to expect on the island, eyebrows fell off the backs of heads. Then, why would I go? Don’t I know how dangerous it is, “a white woman alone at the camps”?
One hotel manager described the refugees in medieval terms, as “Muslim invaders.” I reminded him that they were not soldiers but civilians, many of them women and children. He was dismissive. “They are single men looking for an easy life. They should stay and fight for their country, like we did,” he replied, referring to the Greek civil war of 1946-49. “They have no respect for our culture,” one hotel owner complained, repeating the now widespread myth about refugees defecating in Greek churches (which turned out to be a lie cooked up by supporters of the fascist Golden Dawn party on Twitter).
Since the financial crash, many progressives have looked with envy at the spirit of resistance that has fueled Greece’s mass strikes and civil disobedience and swept Syriza into power. But those days may be coming to an end. The day I arrived in Crete there was (another) general election; Tsipras was running for a renewed mandate after bowing to the austerity memorandum that a clear majority of Greeks had bravely voted against in his referendum.
I was sitting with the staff at an empty tavern watching the results come in on TV. They were all socialists and Syriza supporters, but none had bothered to vote, considering the outcome both a foregone and ultimately meaningless conclusion. “He betrayed us after the referendum,” growled the elderly chef, stubbing his cigarette out for emphasis. “We vote and we vote and nothing changes.”
It brought to mind Emma Goldman’s famous adage that if voting changed anything, it would be illegal. Tsipras held onto power, but voter turnout plummeted to 56.65%, the lowest ever recorded in Greece since the restoration of democracy in 1974, and Golden Dawn received 100,000 votes. In the islands of Kos and Lesvos, which have been overwhelmed by refugee numbers, support for the neo-Nazi party has doubled.
Many progressive Greeks are suffering a crisis of faith. Tsipras’ pyrrhic victory has cost him the confidence of a disillusioned country. Basilis, a tall, eloquent man in his early forties who would seem more at home lecturing at a university than working at a taverna, told me that, though passionate, he felt too old and too tired to continue the political struggle. Instead, he would go back to his family farm for the harvest.
The island’s iconic rolling orchards of olives and oranges are part of the fabric of life here. December’s olive harvest is an annual event of immense cultural (if not economic) significance to Crete, where small-scale organic agriculture is still an intrinsic part of community life. Young and old, rich and poor, in the orchards or just in the garden, most Cretans still maintain a close connection to the land. And they work without pesticides, using Indigenous methods like limewash to protect their crops. When I told Basilis how much we pay for organic tomatoes in the UK, I had to Google it before he’d believe me.
This culture—and the reduced stress levels, high life-expectancy, and sumptuous food that come with it—is a big draw for tourists, oblivious to the fact their banks and governments at home are threatening it with extinction. During a visit to Crete’s blue lagoon, one local had explained to me that areas of outstanding natural beauty in Greece are marked as “zones protected from the EU.” But the vast bulk of Greece’s agricultural land has no such defence. Under the terms of the austerity memorandum signed by Tsipras, taxes on Greek farms will double, forcing many organic family farms out of business. In this economic climate, only big agribusiness can thrive by compromising the environment, food quality, and wages.
“The banks are pressuring families to sell off land to pay their debts,” Basilis told me. “I keep telling people, don’t you see, you’ll sell a bit, your children will sell a bit, and your grandchildren will have no land. Monsanto will come in with its pesticides and chemicals and rape the land. To have no money is bad but at least with land we can still feed ourselves properly. But not for long.”
What I witnessed in Crete—the growing xenophobia and corporate enclosure of the farmlands, the social breakdown and erosion of hope—seemed particularly poignant given the island’s venerable history. Four thousand years ago, it was from this island that the ancient Minoans built an astonishingly advanced civilization, with its pioneering literature, theatre, and seafaring, and established a society marked by remarkable sexual and social equality. Where property was held in common, today selling off land and services to private interests is, for many, the only way to survive.
Many Greeks have opened their hearts and homes to the refugees. But for others, the economic crisis makes exclusion not only justifiable, but essential. “We must stop building camps to encourage them, they need to go,” one small business owner told me in Crete. “We have no resources to care for our own people.” With war veterans eating out of rubbish bins in Athens and the suicide rate soaring, that much is true. In a way, it’s also ironic. As youth unemployment hovers around 50 per cent, Greece is already producing its own “economic migrants”: educated young men and women whose talents the Greek economy can’t use, and who now dream of doing meaningful work for a decent wage abroad.