ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece relocated six asylum-seeking families to Luxembourg on Wednesday, the first such transfer from its soil under an European Union plan to ease the burden on nations inundated by an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Smiling parents holding young children posed for “selfies” with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn beside a Greek airliner on the runway before boarding the flight from Athens, live footage showed.
“Thirty in the face of thousands who have fled their homes in Syria and Iraq is a drop in the ocean,” Tsipras said.
“But we hope that this becomes a stream, and then a river of humanity and shared responsibility, because these are the principles upon which the European Union was built.”
About 86 people have already been transferred directly from Italy to Sweden and Finland under the scheme. But some EU member states have not signed up to it, citing a lack of resources and infrastructure or fears their stability and security could be at risk from taking in large numbers of migrants.
“The relocation of Iraqi and Syrian refugees that we saw today is an encouraging signal we are moving in the right direction,” European Parliament head Martin Schulz said during a visit to Athens.
“It is not sufficient that (only) eight states of the EU are participating in the relocation. This is a common challenge.”
The two-year, 780-million-euro ($852 million), relocation scheme is funded by the 28-member European Union.
More than 590,000 refugees have entered crisis-hit Greece via its long Mediterranean sea boundary with Turkey this year, putting even more pressure on a country struggling to lift itself out of its debt crisis.
On a visit to Athens which coincides with the first bailout review by Greece’s international lenders, European Economic Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said Greece should not let up on reforms because of the migration influx.
“The Commission has but one compass, that of the growth and stability pact, and rules should be implemented,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
“Concerning Greece, we have another compass, the adoption of the memorandum of understanding and the (reform) program. Nothing should make us loosen these reforms.”
Greece has already spent 1.5 billion euros on reception centers and staff to handle the migrants, a government source told Reuters. It needs 100 million euros for identification and relocation, the source said.
EU leaders approved the transfer of about 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy in September, after crisis talks marred by bitter disputes over how to share the burden.
However, the death toll from drowning among refugees making the short but dangerous crossing from Turkey to Greece’s outlying eastern islands is now rising again as the seas have got rougher and temperatures drop as winter approaches.
From the beginning of the year until Oct. 29, at least 435 people died, including many children. Such danger could be avoided if refugees were registered and entered legal relocation schemes from Turkey itself, Tsipras said.
Five more people, three of them children, died in an overnight sea crossing from Turkey to the island of Lesbos, which has received the bulk of refugees coming from Turkey just a few miles away across the water.
Lesbos has run out of space in its mortuary for dead refugees and is now keeping them in a freezer truck. It has declared three days of mourning in memory of the victims.
The European Union wants leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies to also help tackle the migration crisis when they meet in Turkey this month.
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Additional reporting by Lefteris Papadimas, Angeliki Koutantou and Lefteris Karagiannopoulos; Editing by Alison Williams