Briton avoids jail for smuggling Afghan girl out of French camp
A former British soldier on Thursday avoided a jail sentence for trying to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl out of a migrant camp in France, in a case that has deeply divided opinion.
Robert Lawrie, 49, told a French court he had acted after the child's father asked him to save his daughter, Bahar Ahmadi, from the squalor of the notorious camp in the northern port of Calais known as "The Jungle", and take her to relatives in England.
"It was irrational, I wasn't thinking clearly. I tried to make sure she could join her family," an emotional Lawrie said, speaking through a French interpreter.
"What I did was stupid, I was emotionally exhausted. I am sorry," he said.
In its verdict, the court in Boulogne-sur-Mer said Lawrie would have to pay 1,000 euros ($1,085) "for endangering life" if he re-offended.
Lawrie had faced the prospect of a maximum of five years in prison and a 30,000-euro ($33,000) fine for illegally aiding someone to enter a country.
Bahar and her father are now back living in the camp and were present in court to support Lawrie.
Lawrie, a father-of-four from northern England, had visited The Jungle several times to build shelters for the thousands of residents living there who are desperate to reach Britain on ferries or through the Channel Tunnel.
During his visits, Lawrie got to know Bahar, nicknamed Bru, and her father asked him several times to take her across the Channel before he agreed.
But French police stopped Lawrie with the girl after he passed British customs at the French port when sniffer dogs detected two Eritrean migrants who had sneaked into the back of his van.
Lawrie says he did not know the two Eritreans were hidden in his vehicle.
Speaking to AFP in November, Lawrie said: "Who in their right mind would rather a child live in a tent on a chemical dump than allow me to take that one child to her family five miles (eight kilometres) from where I live?"
While the case raised the issue of the trafficking of migrant children, an online petition calling for the case against Lawrie to be dropped attracted 120,000 signatures in France and 50,000 in Britain.
- 'A very stupid decision' -
Lawrie told the court he did not have contact with any of the girl's relatives in Britain and had only been given an address.
"It was a very stupid decision," he told the court.
Migrants have been gathering around Calais for years, but the Jungle grew rapidly in early 2015 as the migration crisis took hold.
Most of its some 4,000 inhabitants are from war zones such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq or have fled persecution and poverty in African countries such as Sudan and Eritrea.
Efforts by the migrants to reach Britain have grown increasingly desperate, with hundreds storming the Eurotunnel site on several occasions, prompting a massive increase in security.
At least 18 people have died since last June trying to get through the tunnel.
As winter deepens, tensions have risen in the camp with its residents defying efforts to move about 500-700 of them into metal shipping containers fitted out with heaters and electrical sockets and containing cots for babies.
On Thursday, instead of moving into the containers, many migrants were picking up their ramshackle shelters and, with the help of activists, moving them deeper into the camp on the back of trucks.
Sikander Noristany, a 42-year-old representative of the Afghan community, said people were reluctant to leave behind the shops and cafes they have created in the camp and anxious about being asked to submit palm prints in order to move into the containers.
"The main thing people are worried about is the hand scanners... People worry (the hand prints) will be used to send them back here from England."
Officials insist the system is simply a way of increasing security and deny they are trying to restrict the migrants' movements.
But Noristany told AFP: "People do not come to The Jungle to sleep and eat. They are here to try to get to England."
The group that manages the container encampment said 144 people had signed up to move in and they expected more to join them.
"We are expecting... 200 people this evening," said Stephane Duval, the manager of "Vie active".
© 2016 AFP