Small Greek islands punch for equal status ahead of local elections

Anáfi (Greece) (AFP) –


On the small Greek island of Anafi -- population 273 -- each ferry arrival is a notable event. With a mere two connections a week to the port of Piraeus, Anafiotes feel little love from the state in distant Athens.

The island has a single doctor, ten high-school students, one cash dispenser, that regularly runs dry, and a steadily dwindling citizenry down by half in the last sixty years.

"At 10pm, everything is dead. All you can hear is the wind howling and cats meowing," says Martha Ferfiri, a recent arrival from northern Greece struggling to adapt to local life.

"The days can seem especially long to young people who do not have the same interests as older generations," says Ferfiri, whose companion Yannis Patiniotis is running for mayor in May 26 local elections held nationwide.

Patiniotis, a 35-year-old who spent six years studying in Athens before returning to open a restaurant and a cafe, says Anafi can change "from an abandoned island to an attractive all-year destination."

"Few young people live on the island all year round," the leftist candidate told AFP. "We want to attract them, create jobs by focusing on green energy and sustainable tourism," he told AFP.

Anafi is just a one-hour ferry ride from famed Santorini, an island which attracts more than 1.5 million tourists each summer.

Among ideas floated by Patiniotis is redeveloping the island's small port to accommodate sailboats, encouraging a general medical practitioner to settle, and opening a museum showcasing the island's rich political history.

During the Greek civil war (1946 -49) and the military dictatorship (1967-74), Anafi was a place of exile for suspected Communists.

- Clean energy and refugees -

A country of archipelagos, Greece has about 100 islands with fewer than 750 inhabitants that are poorly served and neglected by public services.

Even those with groundbreaking ideas and initiatives are left struggling.

A prime example is Tilos, an island of 600 souls that made headlines in 2008 when its then mayor Tassos Aliferis officiated the country's first gay weddings.

A decade later, Tilos is run by Aliferis' sister-in-law Maria Kamma, who is still fighting to make the island an example in green energy management, ethical tourism, and refugee hospitality.

Since 2017, 85 percent of the island's energy needs are covered by a wind turbine and photovoltaic panels.

Yet a few months ago, the only bank on the island nearly closed down, and it took political pressure on the head office in Athens to keep it open.

Two years after she was elected in 2014, and against the tide of xenophobic movements throughout Europe, Maria Kamma asked to host refugees and developed an integration programme with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Greek NGO Solidarity Now.

Ten Syrian families were settled on Tilos until recently under this initiative.

"Unfortunately, against our will, the funding has stopped, but we still want to welcome refugees on our island with dignity," Kamma told AFP.

"They stimulate our local economy and make an enormous contribution on a personal level. In March, we opened a cheese factory, a cooperative between locals, refugees and migrants," the 48-year-old notes.

- 'Stuck in bureaucracy' -

Eleftherios Kechagioglou, head of the Hellenic small islands network, insists that size matters not, as small islands have repeatedly demonstrated that they deserve more autonomy from the centralised Greek state.

"Town halls often have ideas and secure European funds, but then they must obtain ministerial authorisations and are stuck in bureaucracy," he laments.

The main problem facing small islands is that they are usually attached to a larger administrative unit, be it Athens or a larger neighbouring island.

Access is also crucial, given the lack of airport infrastructure.

"Some major shipping companies do not want to stop on these islands because it is not profitable," says Kechagioglou.

"Greece is currently short of 30 ferries right now, because some have been scrapped and not replaced, or they are not suited to small islands...big ships cannot dock at tiny ports," he adds.

Several islands are now exploring the possibility of partnering up to buy medium-sized boats for more frequent services.