Hero or smuggler? Briton on trial for helping migrant girl

2016-01-14 18:00
Rob Lawrie holds Bahar Ahmadi in his arms during a press conference near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. (Michel Spingler, AP)

Rob Lawrie holds Bahar Ahmadi in his arms during a press conference near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. (Michel Spingler, AP)

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Boulogne-sur-Mer - A French court must decide whether a British man who went on trial on Thursday is a smuggler or a hero after he tried to spirit a 4-year-old Afghan girl from a squalid migrant camp in the French city of Calais to family members in Britain.

Just before the trial, Rob Lawrie appeared with the girl in his arms at a news conference in northern France, pleading for understanding of what he acknowledged was "an irrational choice".

Lawrie's case epitomises the clash between the heart and the law amid Europe's record-breaking migrant influx. The 49-year-old faces charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration. If convicted in his one-day trial, he faces a maximum prison term of five years and a €30 000 ($32 000) fine.

"What you're looking at here is a waste of life. She's living in a refugee camp," Lawrie told reporters as young Bahar Ahmadi smiled timidly for the cameras. "People call it smuggling ... I was rescuing the little girl."

He agreed, however, that his decision was misguided.

"I'm sorry. I regret it and I wouldn't do it again," he said.

Lawrie, a former carpet-cleaner and soldier from the Leeds area, had been helping migrants as a volunteer when he was caught October 24 by French border police with Bahar Ahmadi tucked away with her teddy bear in a cache in his van.

The child had been living with her father in the Calais camp, which is mired in mud and now home to at least 4 200 migrants trying to sneak into Britain. It is the biggest of several migrant camps that have sprung up in northern France.

Lawrie testified through a translator at the trial in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Presiding Judge Louis Betermiez pressed Lawrie on whether he was hiding the child, then asked whether he was compromising her safety and whether the charge should include endangerment.

Bahar and her dad, Reza Ahmadi, were in the courtroom, too.

The father could not be summoned as a witness because French law states he must have an address, and he is homeless, said Lawrie's lawyer, Lucile Abassade. Ahmadi will be available to answer questions, via a translator, if the judge wishes.

Take it on the chin

Asked before the trial how he would react if sent to jail, Lawrie replied: "If I go to jail today ... I will take it on the chin."

Lawrie stresses he took no money to transport Bahar across the English Channel. However, an official connected to the case says the charge against him amounts to alleged smuggling even if it does not involve a network. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly ahead of the trial.

The fact that the child was tucked into a small hiding place raised questions in the minds of investigators, the official said.

"I had told her father 'no' many times," Lawrie said in an interview last week with The Associated Press at his house in Guiseley, 335km north of London. "But half past 10 one rainy night, when she fell asleep on my knee as I was leaving for the ferry, I just couldn't leave her there anymore. All rational thought left my head."

Lawrie is among hundreds of volunteers helping migrants amid a surge of people fleeing the war in Syria, violence in Afghanistan or poverty in Africa.

Lawrie, with four children of his own, said his passion to help was awakened in September after seeing the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. He raised funds for migrants, travelled to Calais to help them build up the camp. He became so involved that his wife has since left him.

French authorities are trying to crack down on smuggling and deter immigrants from risking the journey, but critics say they are also targeting migrant helpers.

A retired university lecturer, Claire Marsol, transported two Eritreans in France illegally from the Nice train station to another nearby train station. She was convicted in December by a court in Grasse of aiding their travel and fined €1 500 ($1 639).

"They continue to intimidate volunteers," said Rafael Flichman of Cimade, an association that aids migrants.

Two Eritrean migrants had also slipped into the back of Lawrie's vehicle, but Lawrie said he knew nothing about them and police believed him. They are not part of the case.

Read more on:    uk  |  france  |  migrants

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