ATHENS (Reuters) - A group of 50 refugees and asylum seekers flew from Greece to Britain on Monday to reunite with relatives in a transfer that had been held up by the coronavirus lockdown.
The group includes 16 unaccompanied minors, Greek migration ministry officials said. Some 130 Greek nationals stranded in the UK because of the COVID-19 lockdown will be repatriated on the return flight, the ministry said.
Greece hopes to gradually relocate around 1,600 vulnerable persons from its refugee camps to other countries in coming months.
Monday’s group were relocated under the Dublin Treaty, an accord facilitating family reunifications if a close relative is already in the country of destination.
The transfer had been planned for March but was put on hold because of the lockdown introduced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In Greece, restrictions were partly eased on May 4.
“Today the lives of the people who are leaving is changing,” Deputy migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos told reporters at Athens airport. “The coronavirus was an additional procedural challenge but as you can see it was not an obstacle,” he said.
The group waved as they boarded the aircraft.
Beth Gardiner-Smith, the CEO of refugee charity Safe Passage International, which supported the initiative, said in a news release: “The British and Greek governments have shown real leadership in reuniting these families despite the travel difficulties.”
Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts and poverty in their countries flowed used Greece as a springboard towards other European countries in 2015 and 2016, when an EU-brokered accord with Turkey all but halted the flow.
A bottleneck in processing asylum applications left many stuck in the country while asylum applications were examined.
The reunification was also supported two members of the British House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Alf Dubs and the Earl of Dundee, a Conservative with responsibility for child refugees at the Council of Europe.
“I hope it is only a start because there are other children across Europe who want to join their family in Britain under the Dublin III family reunion and there are other children who are in the Greek camps who may not have family here but also need to be helped to find safety,” Dubs was quoted as saying in the news release.
Reporting By Lefteris Papadimas; Additional reporting by Michele Kambas, Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky