Being a large, often self-contained island with an independent history, Crete can sometimes seem a world away from mainland Greece. But as the nation struggles with its economy and relationship with the EU, so too does Crete have to face the governmental shortfalls and the recession that are impacting people all over Greece. Other challenges are Crete’s natural environment and its position abutting the Middle East and Africa, from where many migrants flee north.

Crete – the ‘Greek Colombia’?

The EU is concerned about Greece’s role in illegal or refugee migration. European border policing mission Frontex (http://frontex.europa.eu) began operations on the Greece–Turkey border and at sea in 2010. The flow of migrants leaving North Africa increased due to the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, and people fleeing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria in 2014 and 2015 caused an overall 149% increase from 2014 to 2015.

In Crete, traffickers’ vessels packed with migrants in inhumane conditions have in recent years been found both washed up on Cretan shores and off the island. Many of the vessels are bound for Italy, but according to Amnesty International more than 2500 people of the estimated 150,000 who tried to make the crossing in 2014 went missing or drowned. Communities in the south of Crete, like Ierapetra or Paleohora, end up in a tough situation: trying to shelter the stranded migrants temporarily, but unable to support them long-term, and the migrants’ fates are uncertain. Some, deemed political refugees, are given a temporary permit to remain in Greece, others are sent for deportation.

It is clear that the issue, which has become a major political one across the country and Europe as a whole, will continue to be a challenge for Crete.

Crete & the Fiscal Crisis

As with anywhere in Greece, Crete has not been immune to the country’s severe debt crisis. Between 2010 and 2012, the 'troika’ (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) approved two bailout loan packages totalling €240 billion (not all of which was disbursed) to prevent Greece from defaulting on its debt (equal to 150% of its GDP). The deals required the government to impose strict austerity measures (public spending and pension cuts, reduction of red tape, crack-downs on tax evasion and across-the-board tax increases) as well as to raise billions through the privatisation of state-controlled assets.

The country has fallen into a depression: GDP shrunk by about 20% during five years. By 2014 unemployment climbed to 28%, with youth unemployment at a staggering 60%. In early 2015 when the ECB cut off emergency aid (already totalling €130 billion), the banks closed briefly and capital controls were imposed, and remain in effect as of the time of writing (July 2015).

Throughout these machinations, tumultuous social and political repercussions have rocked Greece. These include mass protests and widespread strikes. Disillusionment with the long-ruling PASOK and New Democracy parties ultimately yielded parliamentary elections in January 2015, which saw Alexis Tsipras of the leftist anti-austerity party Syriza become prime minister. As Greece teeters on the brink of default, talks with the troika remain embattled as a third loan package and debt restructuring are being negotiated. The possibility remains that Greece could exit the eurozone.

The reality of lost jobs, capital controls, cut wages and pensions, unpayable taxes, and disappearing social services has been exacerbated by the disillusioning uncertainty that accompanies each of these political and economic manoeuvres. Yet it is possible that for its part, Crete itself may weather whatever storms are coming better than elsewhere in the country. Crete’s relative abundance of natural resources and geographical isolation from the more urbanised mainland shield it to a degree from problems. The retention of strong family ties and traditions means that informal societal safety structures remain in place. But how long can people’s ingenuity and savings hold out?

Environmental Awareness

A growing number of locals are becoming increasingly sensitive to the long-term dangers of environmental degradation, and are tapping into the potential of sustainable ecotravel. The lack of prior planning and regulation is most evident in the tourist zones along the highly developed northern coast. In response, local environmental groups, students and expats have banded together to successfully prevent several large-scale developments. Whether the country’s fiscal crisis and the need to raise revenue leads to environmental initiatives going by the wayside, is anybody’s guess for now.

Tourism on the Rebound

As in Greece overall, locals breathed a collective sigh of relief when tourism grew by 15% in 2014. As a key engine of the Cretan economy, tourism generates some 40% of its output and accounts for at least one in five jobs. Though welcome, the uptick does not mean that Crete is out of the woods, especially since visitors are sometimes lured by lower prices.