First refugees leave Greece under EU quota as influx surges
The first refugees left Greece on Wednesday under an EU relocation plan, but Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras warned they were a "drop in the ocean" as the number of illegal migrant entries surged to 800,000 this year.
The six Syrian and Iraqi families, who are starting new lives in Luxembourg, are the first to be relocated from Greece under plans to share out nearly 160,000 migrants across the bloc in a scheme fiercely opposed by some EU members.
Tsipras, who was at Athens airport to see the 30 refugees off, said they were making “a trip to hope”, but warned their numbers were nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands who have arrived on European shores this year.
“Today they have the opportunity to make a trip to hope, to a better life,” said Tsipras, who was joined at the airport by Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
“It’s a drop in the ocean, but we hope the drop will become a stream and then a river of humanity.”
He spoke as Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU’s Frontex border agency, told Germany’s Bild newspaper that migrants have made some 800,000 “illegal entries” to the bloc so far this year and warned that the influx has probably not “reached its peak”.
The need for a solution to Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II is becoming increasingly urgent, with at least 80 migrants — many of them children — dying in the last week while trying to cross from Turkey to Greece in rough weather.
“It’s these flights that should be routine, not shipwrecks,” Greece’s deputy immigration minister Ioannis Mouzalas said as the refugees flew out from Athens.
On Tuesday four more migrants, including two children, drowned after their boat got into difficulty off the Greek island of Lesbos.
In Germany, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that more than 6,000 soldiers have been mobilised to manage the influx into a country that is expected to take in up to a million asylum seekers this year.
This is more German troops than are deployed abroad, she noted.
– ‘Turkey is the gateway’ –
“The human sacrifice that shames European civilisation must stop,” said Tsipras, whose country saw more than 200,000 people land on its beaches in October alone, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
Tsipras said the registration and relocation process for refugees must begin in Turkey, insisting: “Greece is not the gateway; Turkey is the gateway.”
Ankara’s cooperation is seen as key to ending the crisis, with the EU last month announcing a refugee cooperation deal with Turkey that includes a possible three billion euros ($3.3 billion) in aid.
Two first groups of Eritreans and Syrians left Italy under the relocation scheme last month, bound for Sweden and Finland, although some countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland still oppose the mandatory quotas.
A Greek asylum service official said the Iraqi and Syrian families leaving Athens on Wednesday, chosen because they are considered vulnerable, included 16 children — two of them disabled — and a pregnant woman.
On arrival in Luxembourg the families will spend two days in a registration centre and then up to three months in temporary accommodation. The welfare service will then help them to find permanent housing, schools and jobs.
Luxembourg’s government said there would be no press activities on their arrival in the country, saying they “want to give them some privacy while they are starting their new life.”
Several European countries have closed their borders in the midst of the migrant crisis, and on Tuesday Austria became the latest country to tout plans to tighten its asylum rules.
Lawmakers have put forward a bill, due to go before parliament in December, that would mean anyone granted asylum would be reassessed after three years and sent back if their country of origin is deemed safe.
Chancellor Werner Faymann said the controversial legislation, which has been criticised by rights groups, is a “signal that asylum is something which is temporary” and is aimed at deterring people from coming to Austria.
Peter Stradner, the mayor of the village of Wagna, near the Slovenian border where hundreds of migrants have been arriving every day, wrote to Faymann on Wednesday to protest over “simply catastrophic” conditions in the area and warning of a “serious threat” to social stability.