Briton goes on trial in France for trying to smuggle Afghan child into UK

Boulogne-sur-Mer, January 14

A British ex-soldier who tried to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into Britain at her father’s request was no hero but wanted “to save a little girl” and put a human face on the plight of refugees, he said hours before going on trial in France.

The 49-year-old British father-of-four faces up to five years in jail and a 30,000-euro fine for aiding illegal immigration, in a case that goes to the heart of Europe’s dilemma over how to deal with its worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Lawrie said he felt he must act to help refugees after pictures of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi stirred worldwide sympathy in September for Syrians and Afghans fleeing war and poverty.

The day after seeing the picture, he 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 on October 24 as nights grew colder in the camp. 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.

“Selfishly for me, my thought is one of fear. I don’t want to go to jail,” Lawrie told reporters ahead of the trial.

“I also like to think we’ve changed the public image of young men trying to get on trains and trucks,” he said after arriving at the news conference carrying in his arm the little Afghan girl, who was smiling and eating candies. “We’ve put a compassionate image on the refugee crisis in northern France.”

He said he regretted what he called an irrational decision and wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try to do the same, but also added: “I don’t understand why other people around the world are not getting as emotional as me.”

An estimated 4,000 people live in the Calais “jungle” and some 3,000 in another nearby camp, hoping to reach Britain, where better job opportunities and the more familiar English language are big lures. Most attempt the crossing by trying to board trains or trucks.

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.

The trial is due to start at around 1:30pm (1230 GMT).