Briton on trial in France for trying to return refugee, 4, to family

Rob Lawrie had a choice. On one side lay the law — you can’t sneak a 4-year-old girl across international borders — and on the other side sat his sentiments: How could he leave that girl trapped in a squalid migrant camp?
Briton on trial in France for trying to return refugee, 4, to family

He led with his heart — and was caught.

He goes on trial tomorrow in France, accused of aiding illegal immigration for trying to take Bahar Ahmadi from the settlement in Calais, France, to safety in England, where the Afghan girl had family in Leeds waiting to look after her.

Judges in Boulogne-Sur-Mer will determine if the ex-British soldier is a criminal or a compassionate man who could not turn his back on a child in need.

In September, he gave in to the repeated pleas of the girl’s father, Reza Ahmadi, who begged him to spirit his daughter across the English Channel, but they were stopped by guards who eventually found her hidden in Lawrie’s van, teddy bear squeezed tightly to her chest.

Lawrie, 49, faces criminal charges that carry a maximum prison term of five years and a €30,000 fine — even as thousands have flocked to his Facebook page to express admiration for what he has done and signed an online petition urging the British government to ask the French for clemency.

“I had told her father ‘no’ many times,” said Lawrie, from Guiseley, Leeds.

“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.”

He said he bonded with ‘Bru’ — the girl’s nickname — after he volunteered to help design and build shelters at the squalid camp in Calais that is home to about 4,200 people fleeing war and poverty.

“She left Afghanistan, with her father via traffickers, when she was less than 3,” Lawrie said.

“It’s incomprehensible. The reason I became so close is I never once saw her without a smile on her face.”

He said he could no longer leave her in a cold, dangerous and unsanitary camp when she had family waiting for her living in England.

His crusade has come at a cost. His house has the photos, toys, and knick-knacks associated with a happy family life, but his wife has left with their four children, leaving the house oddly silent.

He blames himself, saying he failed to bring her on board regarding his extensive volunteer work in France.

Lawrie’s Paris-based lawyer, Lucile Abassade, said he is charged with “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”.

“He gave in to his emotion,” saidAbassade . “He saw this child outside in the cold... and he cracked.”

Lawrie wants French authorities to understand he is not a smuggler trying to profit from the crisis.

“I hope the prosecutors will see that, because I don’t want to go to prison,” he said.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox