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ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Leggeri, many in Germany are hoping that fewer refugees will come to Europe as a result of the EU deal with Turkey. Do you believe that will be the case?

Fabrice Leggeri: The agreement with Turkey is a message more than anything. It shows that the borders to Europe aren’t simply open. That will prevent many from paying thousands to human smugglers and entering Europe illegally. In that regard, yes, the numbers will decrease. But there will still be people at the gates to Europe needing protection. Perhaps even more than before.

ZEIT ONLINE: So the "historic crisis" of which you recently spoke is not yet over?

Leggeri: Of course not. The causes remain the same. The civil war is still ongoing in Syria, which has resulted in roughly half of the population leaving the country. In Jordan alone, 4 million people are living in refugee camps. The more remote the chances for peace appear, the more desperate the population will become. These people will not disappear. And Europe still has an obligation to provide them protection.

ZEIT ONLINE: The decision as to whether someone receives protection or not is now being left to one of the weakest and most poorly organized countries in the EU: Greece. Do you not see that as a problem?

Leggeri: Greece is not alone; it is receiving help from Frontex. But it’s true: We have to ensure that those who really need protection can also get it.

ZEIT ONLINE: You sound skeptical.

Leggeri: It will be a monumental challenge. Frontex will participate with up to 1,500 officers, including border officials and experts for the registration of asylum-seekers.

ZEIT ONLINE: The deal means that de facto very few people will be able to apply for asylum in Europe because Turkey is now considered to be a safe country of origin. How do you view the situation?

Leggeri: The deal with Turkey is a compromise. And we should be aware of the immense task facing the Turks. Fundamentally, I am of the opinion that we have to establish legal means for refugees to reach the EU so that Europe can fulfill its obligation to provide protection to asylum-seekers. The number of 18,000 people per year that has been discussed thus far is surely just the beginning.

ZEIT ONLINE: To date, we have always seen you as the head of an agency tasked with sealing off Europe -- and also protecting it from potential refugees. Now you are saying that Europe must continue providing asylum to refugees. How does that fit together?

Leggeri: That was and is a misunderstanding. We are responsible for protecting European borders. But as soon as our agents encounter people -- during a sea rescue, for example -- and they ask for asylum, we act neutrally and transfer such persons to the agency responsible. We don’t reject anybody and we aren’t allowed to do so. In recent months, we participated in 90 percent of all rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

ZEIT ONLINE: Nevertheless, Frontex is actually charged with helping secure European borders. Last year, there were 1.8 million illegal border crossings into Europe. What went wrong from Frontex’s perspective?

Leggeri: What changed was the tremendous influx of people. And that happened because the world surrounding Europe changed quickly. In Syria, in parts of Africa, in the Middle East: new crises sprang up everywhere or conditions worsened for people. Pure desperation drove the people to flee to Europe. Sometimes I have the feeling that many EU citizens haven’t completely comprehended the magnitude of this development.

ZEIT ONLINE: On the other hand, many Europeans don't understand why Europe's borders are so difficult to protect.

Leggeri: Some parts of the border are easier to guard, others -- around the Greek islands, for example -- are more difficult. And it depends on whether we have partners in the adjacent countries. In Libya, for example, the political situation is extremely difficult, which is why human smugglers can operate there more easily. And in my opinion, as executive director of Frontex, Turkey could do more to combat the smugglers. But it is true: We need more effective border protection measures and a common European approach. Thus far, each member state has been responsible for securing its own borders. Frontex has only provided coordination and assistance. That's why we welcome the European Commission proposal calling for the expansion of Frontex into an independent border protection agency with a broader mandate. But I will also say: Sometimes we wonder if we really have the necessary support from all member states.

ZEIT ONLINE: What are you lacking?

Leggeri: Let me give you an example: When I sent a letter last October asking member states for 775 border officials to cope with the crisis, I got a call from some of the countries wondering if I had made a mistake in my letter. They assumed I had meant 75 instead of 775 officials.

ZEIT ONLINE: How did you respond?

Leggeri: By saying that it was of course not a mistake and that we need the reinforcements. That makes me wonder if all member states know how grave this crisis is. But good border protection cannot replace good migration policies. And to my mind, last year's crisis was not a Schengen crisis, but a crisis of the European asylum system.


Leggeri: Most refugees last year arrived in Greece via Turkey. They ended up in a country that was stuck in a deep crisis. The country was neither in a position to effectively secure its borders nor did it apparently have sufficient capacity to register the refugees. Many people simply continued their journey northwards without there ever having been an opportunity to register them and distribute them halfway fairly in Europe.

ZEIT ONLINE: Greece was abandoned?

Leggeri: People thought that Greece would somehow manage. But that was apparently not the case. I myself made an informal offer in Brussels last June that Frontex could pay the salaries of Greek border guards for a few months so that border protection would remain intact. We also offered to help out on the Greek-Macedonian border. Both offers were rejected because we didn't have the requisite mandate. But I still wonder: Why did the EU rely on a country that was in the middle of a financial crisis?

ZEIT ONLINE: Another question is why Europe failed to establish an orderly system for accepting refugees just because it was unwilling to spend a couple million euros for border control officers.

Leggeri: The problem is not the few million euros. The problem is too little solidarity among the member states. Some heads of government only think in national terms any more. And they do so because their voters demand it. People don’t understand that we are faced with a European challenge that we can’t handle at the national level. That is fatal, because if we look at the problem only from a national perspective, we will fail.