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First refugee flight leaves Greece, but Aegean death toll mounts

Published 04/11/2015

Refugees and migrants perch atop a heavily-listing boat as they try to travel from the Turkish coast to Skala Sykaminias on the north-eastern Greek island of Lesbos (AP)
Refugees and migrants perch atop a heavily-listing boat as they try to travel from the Turkish coast to Skala Sykaminias on the north-eastern Greek island of Lesbos (AP)

The first 30 refugees to be relocated from Greece have boarded a plane in Athens bound for Luxembourg.

Six families from Syria and Iraq marked the start of a programme seeking to relocate refugees who have arrived in Greece from Turkey to other European Union countries without them having to make the often dangerous overland journey across the Balkans on foot.

The number is minuscule compared with the flood of people who risk their lives to reach Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast. Dozens of dinghies, wooden boats and other vessels reach the islands daily.

More than 600,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece this year, most of them in the past few months.

Hundreds have died as overloaded and unseaworthy boats and dinghies overturn or sink in the Aegean. Another five people - three children and two men - drowned on Tuesday night following an accident involving a boat carrying 70 people.

The coastguard said 65 people had been rescued and there were no further people reported missing.

Officials at Athens airport stressed that the first flight was a symbolic start to a programme that will expand.

"Of course we have full realisation that this is just a start, that 30 people compared to thousands who have fled (their homes due to war) is just a drop in the ocean," said prime minister Alexis Tsipras. "But we aim to make this drop a stream."

The relocation programme aims to transfer 160,000 refugees from the EU countries most affected by the influx to other member states. A small group has already been relocated from Italy.

Mr Tsipras also stressed the need to resettle people directly from Turkey to prevent more deaths in the Aegean Sea.

The premier and European Parliament head Martin Schulz, who was also at the airport, are due to visit the island of Lesbos, where the majority of people arrive by boat, on Thursday.

Luxembourg's foreign minister Jean Asselborn said the "symbolic" gesture of the departures was "only a start, but a very, very important start".

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