The first 30 refugees to be relocated from Greece have boarded a plane in Athens bound for Luxembourg.
The journey of six families from Syria and Iraq mark the start of a programme 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 last few months.
Hundreds have died as their overloaded and unseaworthy boats and dinghies overturned or sank in the Aegean. Another four people – two children and two men – drowned on Tuesday night following an accident involving a boat carrying nearly 50 people.
Officials present at the Athens airport stressed this was just 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.
He and European Parliament president Martin Schulz, who was also at the airport, will 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”.
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,” Mr Asselborn said.
If Europe failed to change such images as well as bouts of xenophobia, “then the values of the European Union are destroyed in some way”, he added.
Reporters were not allowed to speak to the departing families.