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Europe

British man cleared of illegal migration charges in trying to save girl from Calais ‘Jungle’

media Rob Lawrie, 49, with four-year-old Afghan girl Bahar Ahmadi, who he is accused of trying to smuggle into Britain, outside the court in Boulogne-sur-Mer, 14 Janvier 2016. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French court cleared a British man who tried to sneak a four-year-old Afghan refugee girl into the UK of charges relating to illegal migration on Thursday. Former soldier Rob Lawrie’s case attracted wide public support in France, where supporters urged the court to consider the humanitarian nature of his actions.

Lawrie, a 49-year-old former soldier, was part of a humanitarian group building shelters for the estimated 4,000 people currently living in the squalid refugee camp known as "the Jungle" in the French port city of Calais.

French border police stopped Lawrie last 24 October trying to enter the tunnel through the Channel with four-year-old Afghan girl Bahar Ahmadi, whom he had met with her father living in the camp.

Lawrie said he regretted what he called an “irrational decision” to try and hide Ahmadi from police but hoped that the court would pay more attention to the humanitarian motivation of his act and his efforts to show the “human side” of the plight of refugees.

“I regret it selfishly, because it’s ruined my life but look what’s happened on the back of it,” Lawrie told a press conference ahead of his hearing at a court in Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France.

“We have somehow changed the perception of young men trying to get onto trucks and trains, and getting killed in the meantime, and showing the human side of children suffering in refugee camps.”

French petition gathers over 123,000 signatures

People fleeing violence, poverty and persecution in the Middle East, Asia and Africa have been coming to Calais in hopes of reaching Britain since the late 1990s but their numbers soared to as many as 6,000 throughout 2015, a year that also saw the construction of the Jungle on industrial land not far from the city’s port.

Lawrie’s case has sparked support online, including a petition with more than 123,000 signatures in France and another in Britain with more than 54,000 signatures.

“I think the more French people who hear about it, the more they realise there are women and children and families in there [the Jungle] and not just men trying to jump on the backs of lorries. It’s full of people who need help,” said Jim Innis, who helped organise the petitions and who was in Boulogne-sur-Mer to support Lawrie in court.

“It’s been fantastic to read comments from people from Australia, from China, from France, from Africa, from the United States, saying what a wonderful thing this man has done.”

Humanitarian act trumps human trafficking charges

The court handed Lawrie a 1,000-euro suspended fine for endangering Ahmadi’s life when transporting her in his van but in doing so effectively dropped all charges related to illegal migration, which carried a potential sentence of five years in jail and a fine of up to 30,000 euros.

Ahead of the court appearance, lawyer Lucie Abassade said she planned to argue Lawrie was not technically guilty of breaking the law, because in acting to save a child, he was obeying another law about helping a person in danger.

“French law ... says that if you help someone in danger and you're not being paid, by giving them food or shelter or safeguarding their physical integrity, you can't be charged with anything,” Lawrie’s lawyer, Lucie Abassade, said in an interview in the days leading up to the hearing.

“Mr Lawrie did exactly that. He wanted to rescue a little girl, he wanted to save her […] by bringing her to her relatives in the UK.”

The court’s decision comes as French authorities begin moving a quarter of the Jungle’s 4,000 residents into heated shipping containers.

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