A first flight voluntarily returning economic migrants to their home country has departed from Greece, launching a European Union-funded scheme aimed at relieving pressure on the state where most new arrivals reach the bloc.
The first group to depart Athens, comprising of 134 Iraqis, is “the biggest voluntary return our country has ever carried out, and the biggest in Europe this year”, Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas told reporters on Thursday.
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About 5,000 economic migrants will be offered incentives of 2,000 euros ($2,400) per person to return home.
Applicants must have crossed into Greece prior to January 1, 2020, and still be present on the islands of Leros, Samos, Lesbos, Kos and Chios. They will have a month to apply.
The deadline can be extended by another month to make up the required number in the event of a low turnout, the migration ministry has said.
Delayed by the pandemic
Announced in March, the EU scheme was inactive until now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The money is designed to help asylum seekers start afresh in their countries of origin, EU home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson, said at the time.
More than a million migrants and refugees arrived in Greece in 2015 and 2016, according to the UN refugee agency. There are now about 120,000 refugees and migrants in the country.
More than 25,000 asylum seekers live in camps on the five Aegean islands that were originally built to handle just 6,095 people.