ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Thirty refugees left Greece for Luxembourg on Wednesday, the first from Greece under a new EU relocation plan but only a minuscule fraction of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who have entered Greece this year.
The six families from Syria and Iraq marked the start of a program to relocate refugees who have arrived in Greece from nearby Turkey to other European Union countries without them having to make the arduous, often dangerous overland journey across the Balkans on foot.
More than 600,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece so far this year, most in the past few months. Dozens of overcrowded inflatable dinghies and wooden boats reach Greek islands daily, even during bad weather. Hundreds have drowned as their overloaded and unseaworthy boats overturned or sank — over 90 in the last week alone.
Five people — three children and two men — died Tuesday night following an accident involving a boat carrying 70 people. The coast guard said Wednesday that 65 people had been rescued.
Greek government and European officials present at Athens airport for the departure ceremony stressed Wednesday's flight was just a symbolic start to a program that will expand.
"Of course, we have full realization that this is just a start, that 30 people compared to thousands who have fled is just a drop in the ocean," said Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. "But we aim to make this drop a stream."
Speaking in Brussels, where the plane arrived, Angela Corniachtou of the International Organization for Migration said the refugees "were all very happy."
"They are going to a very nice country where they are going to have good education for their children, their families," she said.
On the bus to Luxembourg, the smiling refugee families waved to reporters, with one man saying "Luxembourg, very good!"
The relocation program aims to transfer 160,000 refugees from EU countries on the front line of the migration crisis to other member states. Small groups have already been relocated from Italy to Finland and Sweden.
Tsipras also stressed the need to resettle people directly from Turkey to prevent more deaths in the Aegean Sea.
He and European Parliament head Martin Schulz, who was also at the Athens airport, are to visit the island of Lesbos Thursday, where the majority of people arrive by boat from Turkey.
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the "symbolic" gesture of Wednesday's departures was "only a start, but a very, very important start."
All officials stressed the practice of erecting barbed wire fences at EU borders to keep refugees out was not in line with European values.
"Walls, fences and barbed wires cannot be part of the European Union," Asselborn said. If Europe fails to change such images as well as bouts of xenophobia, "then the values of the European Union are destroyed in some way."
Igor Meglajec in Brussels contributed to this report.