Syrians, Iraqis flown to Luxembourg as Greece begins refugee relocation
Asylum seekers wait to enter a registration camp after crossing the Greek-Macedonian border on November 4, 2015. (AFP/Nikolay Doychino)
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Thirty Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers were flown out of Greece to Luxembourg on Wednesday, marking the start of refugee relocations from a country that has been at the front line of Europe's migration crisis.
More than 600,000 asylum seekers have reached Greece by sea since the start of this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Many of them are seeking refuge from war and conflicts in the Middle East.
EU countries first agreed in July to take in asylum seekers from Greece and Italy - the other main point of entry into Europe - to ease the burden on those two nations. A total of 160,000 asylum seekers are to be relocated over the next two years.
Eighty-six people have been moved from Italy to Finland and Sweden since last month. Greece took longer to put the necessary mechanisms for people transfers in place.
Its prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, acknowledged that the 30 people flown out on Wednesday are just a "drop in the ocean," but expressed hope that this would eventually turn into "a river of shared responsibility."
"Solidarity and sharing - cooperation - is part and parcel of the foundation of the European Union," he told journalists at the Athens airport, where he saw off the asylum seekers.
"Most of these refugees have come here after having risked their lives," he added. "They sailed the Aegean Sea, they went through trials and tribulations, they went through tough times and now they are offered scope to embark on a journey of hope."
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who joined Tsipras in Athens, expressed hope that the asylum seekers will be able "to start a new life in our country, to live in peace, in security and that one day, if they want, they are also able to go back to their countries."
Asselborn and Tsipras both called for European solidarity in the face of the migration crisis, arguing against the construction of "walls, fences or barbed wire" to keep people out.
Almost 500 migrants have died while attempting the sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, according to IOM estimates.
Another five people were reported to have perished on Tuesday evening after their boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos. Two children were among the dead. Forty could be saved, according to the Greek coast guard.
Local media estimated that more than 6,000 asylum seekers are waiting to be taken from the port of Mytilini on Lesbos to the Greek mainland. The crossings have been hampered by a seamen's strike.
The EU has been at pains to make sure that economic migrants who do not qualify for international protection are sent back home, so that there are enough resources for refugees.
As part of those efforts, Greece will fly 70 Pakistani migrants back to Islamabad on Wednesday evening, local media said. The returns are reportedly being financed by the EU.
By Tuesday, 722 migrants had been flown home from EU countries since September, according to the European Commission.
By Helen Maguire and Boris Babic