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British aid worker avoids jail for trying to smuggle Afghan girl into UK

Published 14/01/2016

Rob Lawrie tried to smuggle the girl into the UK hidden in his van, following a plea from her father in Calais' The Jungle camp
Rob Lawrie tried to smuggle the girl into the UK hidden in his van, following a plea from her father in Calais' The Jungle camp

A British aid worker has avoided jail after admitting trying to smuggle an Afghan girl into Britain from France.

Former soldier Rob Lawrie, 49, feared being jailed for up to five years and had appealed for clemency for trying to get four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi - known as Bru - into the UK hidden in his van in October.

The young girl and her family accompanied him to a packed hearing at the Tribunal de Grande Instance court in Boulogne on Thursday, after appearing with him at an earlier press conference in the town.

They were present as Mr Lawrie, who suffers from bipolar disorder and Tourette's syndrome, told the packed court his business had failed, his marriage had broken down and he had tried to kill himself since his arrest.

He said he had acted stupidly in hiding Bru in a sleeping compartment but had simply been trying to take her from The Jungle refugee camp to family members already living legally near him in the UK.

Judge Louis-Benoit Betermiez ordered the father of four from Leeds to pay a suspended fine of 1,000 euro (£750) for endangering a child's safety.

There was a huge round of applause from Mr Lawrie's many supporters as he broke down in tears after the sentence was handed down.

Speaking outside the courtroom, Mr Lawrie said: "Compassion has been in the dock here. France has sent out a message that when compassion is done from the heart, not to make money, not to benefit from it but when it is done really from the heart, France has sent out a message that compassion will win."

He added that he had had a heavy weight on his shoulders but now felt "light" and would continue fighting to get help for child refugees in The Jungle.

He said: "I'm going to have a few days off and then I'm going to raise the profile (of refugees) even more because we cannot simply leave these children ... we need to get these children now and into our education system because these guys are going to be doctors and lawyers and teachers if we get them now and educate them correctly.

"Or we can leave them in The Jungle to rot and die of cold."

Mr Lawrie appealed to reporters to tell the story of children caught up in the refugee crisis.

He told Sky News outside court: "The media get a lot of excitement from showing young men trying to get on trains and trying to get on tracks. You're missing the point to do good - you need to get in The Jungle and see these kids for yourself because they're going to die in this cold, they're eventually going to waste their lives."

Earlier the former Royal Corps of Transport soldier, speaking at a press conference ahead of the court hearing, was asked what his advice would be to others thinking of copying his actions.

He said: "Don't do it. On a personal level it will ruin your life."

Mr Lawrie was stopped in Calais as he returned home in October. The former Army physical training instructor said he was helping build shelters in The Jungle camp when he got to know Bru, and her father asked him to help get her to close family members living legally in Leeds.

He was caught when British sniffer dogs found two Eritrean men who, unbeknown to him, had also stowed in the back of his van.

Mr Lawrie said he had been moved to raise money and bring aid to The Jungle after seeing images of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean in September.

A change.org petition calling for the charges against him to be dropped, describing him as someone who had simply been "demonstrating some humanity" gained more than 123,000 signatures.

Fellow refugee volunteer Jim Innes, who got to know Mr Lawrie through Facebook, started a UK petition on his behalf which gained more than 52,000 signatures asking the Government to intercede and was delivered to the Foreign Office last week.

After news of the sentence came through Mr Innes wrote simply: "Just.so.happy."

Greg Mulholland, Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, said it was a "relief" that Mr Lawrie would be able to return to the UK.

He tweeted: "Huge relief as Rob Lawrie free to come home, a wise and compassionate decision by the French court."

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