European Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs Dimitris Avramopoulos, left, speaks to Eritrean refugees waiting to board an Italian Financial police aircraft which will take them to Sweden, at Rome's Ciampino airport, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. The aircraft, carrying 19 Eritreans, will bring the first refugees to Sweden under the European Union's new resettlement program aimed at redistributing asylum-seekers from hard-hit receiving countries. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

ROME (AP) - Italy bid farewell Friday to the first 19 of an estimated 160,000 refugees who are due to be resettled throughout Europe as part of the EU's new redistribution program aimed at moving asylum-seekers out of hard-hit receiving countries.

An Italian police aircraft carrying the 19 Eritreans took off from Rome's Ciampino airport and headed to Lulea, in the far north of Sweden just south of the Arctic Circle, where Swedish officials will begin registering them and processing their asylum requests.

Sweden's immigration agency said the 14 men and five women, between age 25 and 40, were selected because they have a chance of being granted asylum, and because they had family or other connections to Sweden.

Bundled in flannel shirts and jackets, they smiled and waved as they climbed up the stairs to the aircraft while officials from Italy, the U.N. refugee agency and Red Cross waved from the tarmac.

A significant number of the people making dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea are from Eritrea, an authoritarian country in northeast Africa.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said that upward of 100 more refugees from Italian centers would be resettled in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere in the coming weeks and that overall, 40,000 asylum-seekers would be moved out of Italy over the next two years.

"Today is an important day for Europe and the European Union," Alfano said at an airport press conference. "Today is a day of victory: A victory for fundamental human principles, for those who believe in Europe and for those who believe that saving human lives isn't a value that contrasts with the values of welcome or security."

Italy for years has demanded that European nations shoulder more of the burden of the refugee crisis. Though most migrants prefer to pass through Italy en route to destinations further north, Alfano has been keen to show off the first flight to try to quiet anti-immigrant critics at home.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos and Luxembourg's foreign minister joined Alfano at the airport. Later in the day, they were to travel to the tiny island of Lampedusa, where the first "hotspot" to identify would-be asylum-seekers opened a few weeks ago.

The hotspots are being set up in Italy and Greece, where most of the tens of thousands of people seeking new lives in Europe first land after often-dangerous boat trips from Libya and Turkey. Hotspots are intended to establish whether people are fleeing conflict or violence and have the right to asylum or some other form of protection.

Once selected for resettlement, the asylum-seekers would go where they are told to go, not necessarily where they want to go, Avramopoulos said. "We must be very clear. They must obey."

Lulea, the main city in Swedish Lapland, couldn't be more different from the Eritreans' desert-covered homeland. Temperatures on Friday were 3 degrees C (37 F) but will dip to below freezing at night. Outside the city, reindeer, moose and bears roam in the wilderness.

Speaking at a news conference in Stockholm Friday, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said the influx of migrants "was the greatest humanitarian effort in Swedish history."

The number of Eritrean asylum-seekers in Sweden has recently dropped, from nearly 10,000 during the period January-September 2014 to 5,982 so far this year, according to official figures. The Eritrean community in the country is estimated to be at least of 20,000, according to Swedish media.


Olsen contributed from Copenhagen, Denmark.