A former soldier facing jail for trying to smuggle a child refugee out of the Calais Jungle refugee camp has thanked supporters, after a petition calling for him to be spared prison attracted 15,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
Rob Lawrie, 49, faces a maximum sentence of five years in a French jail for trying to smuggle Bahar Ahmadi into Britain and to take the four-year-old to relatives living legally in this country.
Mr Lawrie, of Guiseley, near Leeds, said he was “staggered” that the online petition urging the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to ask the French authorities to show clemency had more than doubled in size from Tuesday evening to more than 28,000 last night.
“I don’t think ‘thank you’ is enough, because when this started I felt completely alone,” he said. “I think this shows that the UK as a country really does want to help the refugees.”
The volunteer aid worker, who had been caught at Calais border control on 24 October after hiding Bahar in his transit van, added: “I am a 49-year-old man, not a boy. I got carried away with my concerns for Bahar, I didn’t think things through legally, and now I’m ready to take my punishment.
“My real concern is that there are children smaller than my youngest child walking around the Jungle already wearing three or four layers of clothes because it is so cold, and it is only early November.”
Mr Lawrie spoke after The Independent visited the Jungle to be told by Bahar’s father Reza that he was “100 per cent worried” about how his daughter would cope with the coming winter.
Bahar also urged the French authorities to show leniency, saying: “I want Mr Rob to be free. He is very good and kind.”
Jim Innes, the charity worker who started the “Spare Rob Lawrie from Prison” petition, said he had been astounded by the response.
Mr Innes, 37, of Bingley, West Yorkshire, who has never met Mr Lawrie but who started swapping Facebook messages with him after joining a local refugee solidarity campaign, said: “I’ve told Rob he was a daft bugger. I don’t agree with people breaking the law, but I don’t know what I would have done in his situation.
“People who brought children out of places in the Second World War are heroes, but the law considers Rob to be a criminal. Which means the law needs changing.”
A petition written in French supporting Mr Lawrie has attracted 200 signatories, many of them French, with one contributor arguing: “How can we leave these people [refugees] in such distress?”
Elsewhere, however, commentators on French news websites were less sympathetic and congratulated the French border police for catching Mr Lawrie.