British man on trial for taking migrant girl from French migrant camp

BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France - A French court must decide whether a British man who went on trial 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.

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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 epitomizes 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-euro ($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.

After the press conference ended, Bahar ran to her dad, Reza Ahmadi, outside.

Lawrie, a former carpet-cleaner and soldier from the Leeds area, had been helping migrants as a volunteer when he was caught Oct. 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 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.

"I had told her father 'no' many times," Lawrie said in an interview last week with The Associated Press at his house in Guiseley, 335 kilometres 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 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 authorized to speak publicly ahead of the trial.

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

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 spent so much time on this his wife 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 euros ($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.



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