Former soldier Rob Lawrie goes on trial in France on Thursday for trying to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into Britain at her father's request.
The 49-year-old British father-of-four faces up to five years in jail and a 30,000-euro ($32,500, or 22,500 pounds) fine for aiding illegal immigration.
Lawrie went to help migrants in the squalid "jungle" camp in Calais, northern France, where he met Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru, and her father, who asked Lawrie to take the girl to Britain.
He refused several times but relented as nights grew colder in the camp, Lawrie said. He set off in his van with Bru but French police caught him, also finding two Eritrean men in the back of the vehicle, and returned Bahar to her father in the camp.
Just before the trial, Lawrie appeared with the girl in his arms at a news conference in northern France, pleading for understanding of what he acknowledged was "an irrational choice”.
"What you're looking at here is a waste of life. She's living in a refugee camp," Lawrie told reporters as Bahar smiled timidly for the cameras. "People call it smuggling ... I was rescuing the little girl."
He agreed, however, that his decision was misguided.
"I'm sorry. I regret it and I wouldn't do it again," he said.
Lawrie says he acted out of compassion and regrets breaking French law, in a case that goes to the heart of Europe's dilemma over how to deal with its worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
He stresses he took no money to transport Bahar across the English Channel. However, an official connected to the case says the charge against him amounts to alleged smuggling even if it does not involve a network. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly ahead of the trial.
The case has sparked debate on both sides of the English Channel over how those who try to help migrants should be treated under the law. Online petitions asking for Lawrie to be spared prison had garnered some 120,600 signatures in France and more than 54,000 in the UK at the time of writing.
"She's a special little girl," Lawrie told Reuters in Britain while awaiting trial.
"We cannot help everyone, but everyone can help someone and she had become my someone," said Lawrie, who can be seen on Reuters footage from October playing hide-and-seek in the Calais camp with the smiling girl and her father, shortly before the ill-fated smuggling attempt.
Several thousand migrants are in camps in the area, hoping to reach Britain, where better job opportunities and the more familiar English language are big lures.
Lawrie's lawyer said she would try to get him cleared of all charges, basing her case on a part of French law that protects from punishment those who help migrants in danger without being paid in return.
As many European governments tighten their migration policies, a growing number of individuals choose to go out and help, sometimes illegally, according to researcher François Gemenne, a specialist on immigration.
"We see strong reactions of fear and xenophobia but also strong reactions of solidarity," he said. "People turn to civil disobedience when they feel governments are failing."
A retired university lecturer, Claire Marsol, was convicted in December after she transported two Eritreans in France illegally from the Nice train station to another nearby train station. She was fined 1,500 euros ($1,639).
The trial was due to start at around 1:30pm (1230 GMT).
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)
Date created : 2016-01-14