BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France Former soldier Rob Lawrie goes on trial in France on Thursday for trying to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into Britain at her father’s request.
The 49-year-old British father-of-four faces up to five years in jail and a 30,000-euro ($32,500, or 22,500 pounds) fine for aiding illegal immigration.
Lawrie went to help migrants in the squalid “jungle” camp in Calais, northern France, where he met Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru, and her father, who asked Lawrie to take the girl to Britain.
He refused several times but relented as nights grew colder in the camp, he told Reuters. He set off in his van with Bru but French police caught him, also finding two Eritrean men in the back of the vehicle, and returned Bahar to her father in the camp.
Lawrie says he acted out of compassion and regrets breaking French law, in a case that goes to the heart of Europe’s dilemma over how to deal with its worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
“She’s a special little girl,” he told Reuters in Britain while awaiting trial.
“We cannot help everyone, but everyone can help someone and she had become my someone,” said Lawrie, who can be seen on Reuters footage from October playing hide-and-seek in the Calais camp with the smiling girl and her father, shortly before the ill-fated smuggling attempt.
Several thousand migrants are in camps in the area, hoping to reach Britain, where better job opportunities and the more familiar English language are big lures.
Lawrie’s lawyer said she would try to get him cleared of all charges, basing her case on a part of French law that protects from punishment those who help migrants in danger without being paid in return.
As many European governments tighten their migration policies, a growing number of individuals choose to go out and help, sometimes illegally, according to researcher Francois Gemenne, a specialist on immigration.
“We see strong reactions of fear and xenophobia but also strong reactions of solidarity,” he said. “People turn to civil disobedience when they feel governments are failing.”
The trial is due to start at around 1:30 p.m. (1230 GMT).
(Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Andrew Roche)