ATHENS, Greece — The first 30 refugees to be relocated from Greece boarded a plane in Athens on Wednesday bound for Luxembourg.
The six families from Syria and Iraq mark the start of a program seeking to relocate refugees who have arrived in Greece from nearby Turkey to other European Union countries without them having to make the arduous and 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, carrying from 40 to hundreds of people each.
More than 600,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Greece so far this year, most of them in the past few months.
Hundreds have died as their overloaded and unseaworthy boats and dinghies overturned or sank in the Aegean. Another five people - three children and two men - drowned Tuesday night following an accident involving a boat carrying 70 people. The coast guard said Wednesday that 65 people had been rescued, and there were no further people reported missing.
Officials present at the Athens airport 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 (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 program 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.
Tsipras also stressed the need to resettle people directly from Turkey to prevent more deaths in the Aegean Sea.
Tsipras 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 Wednesday's departures was "only a start, but a very, very important start."
All officials stressed that the practice of some EU countries to erect barbed wire fences at their borders trying 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," he said.
Reporters were not allowed to speak to the departing families.