A former British soldier who goes on trial in France next week after being caught trying to smuggle a child from a French migrant camp into Britain said he felt he had to do something to help those caught up in last year's refugee crisis.
Rob Lawrie, from Guiseley in northern England, said he felt compelled to act after seeing pictures of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, images which prompted worldwide sympathy for those caught up in Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War Two. "I didn't know what difference I could make, I just knew I had to get down to Europe, in the camps, Dunkirk, Calais, get down to the Hungarian border, just do something," he told Reuters TV.
Lawrie, who is due to appear in court on Jan. 14 in Boulogne-sur-Mer on a charge of aiding illegal immigration, closed his carpet-cleaning business, bought a van and headed to migrant camps in northern France to deliver tents, aid and help build temporary structures for those living there.
Among those he met were four-year-old Afghan migrant Bahar Ahmadi and her father Reza. Bahar, who he referred to as Bru, followed him around the camp and he struck up a close friendship with her. "She's a special little girl. She's become almost representative of child refugees. After all the months I spent with her, I never saw her without a smile," he said with tears in his eyes.
"We cannot help everyone, but everyone can help someone and she had become my someone." The girl's father asked him to take her to live with a relative in northern England, and although he initially refused, the 49-year-old father of four said his paternal instinct kicked in and he could not bear to leave her in the "squalid" camp. "At that point I can truly say for the first point in my life that all rational thought left me," Lawrie added.
He hid the girl in his van and set off for Britain on Oct. 24 last year but was stopped by border police who found two Eritrean men in the back, who he said had stowed away inside without his knowledge.
He was arrested and Bahar was returned to her father. "I do regret it because it has cost me everything," he said."It has cost me my family and it's financially bankrupted me, but that's about me. It was done on the spur of the moment about compassion, Yes I was compassionately right, but it was illegal - end of. It was illegal."
Despite public support for his cause and two online petitions which have attracted 150,000 signatures asking for leniency, he could face a jail term of up to five years under French law.