Man who tried to smuggle child refugee into UK: 'I'd never do it again. Well ... '
A former soldier who narrowly avoided jail for trying to smuggle a child refugee into Britain has said he would attempt to get a minor to safety again if he thought he could get away with it.
The image of three-year-old laying facedown and lifeless on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum in September 2015 sparked a wave of outrage across the world. For Rob Lawrie, a self-employed carpet cleaner from Guiseley near Leeds, it changed everything.
Weeks after seeing the images, Lawrie, 50, was arrested by French police at the Calais border. Officers discovered a four-year-old Afghan girl, , in a compartment above the driver’s seat of his van.
Lawrie had been volunteering in refugee camp and in a moment he describes as “irrational, irrational, irrational”, he gave in to her father’s desperate pleas to bring his daughter to Britain where she would live with their relatives in Leeds.
Last January, for what he calls his “crime of compassion”. He became an overnight cause célèbre, winning thousands of supporters online and raising donations for child refugees. A Hollywood producer is writing a feature film titled Mr Rob, the name given to him in Calais, and he continues to take charity donations to displaced children across Europe.
It has, however, come at a price:. His marriage has broken down and he says he was at risk of losing his home in West Yorkshire but for an “extremely understanding” landlord. How does he look back on 2016? “I don’t know whether I want to reflect on it so I’ve just kept going really,” he says. “Kept going to Calais, kept going to Paris. I’ve just got back from Greece.
“It’s changed everything for me,” he says with a pause. “I still have my family. I still have my children. Talk about a life being changed in a year. This time a year ago I was a happy family man. And I was going to stop, but when it all broke down I just carried on and got deeper and deeper into it.”
Last month Lawrie took a van full of donations to Thessaloniki, where are said to be living in dire conditions. He took a rusty woodburner donated by a stranger with him. “You would’ve thought it was made out of gold,” he said.
“I’ll tell you why I do this, because it doesn’t pay any money whatsoever. For the first half of my life I was like most people, working to live. Earn money, earn money, have a nicer car, have a bigger house, have two holidays instead of one, buy an Armani suit instead of a Next suit. But getting nothing out of it. You get so much out of this personally.”
A former soldier in the Royal Corps of Transport, Lawrie served in Bosnia and Northern Ireland before leaving to attend university. After that he set up a successful courier business in the north-east of England. In 2003, however, he contracted bacterial meningitis. When he was eventually released from hospital, he says his dramatic mood swings caused the breakup of his first marriage.
From erratic highs – buying holidays to California, or a new Range Rover – he would plummet to despairing lows. One day, he says, he bought a high-powered Honda Hornet motorbike and wrote it off the same day, landing himself back in hospital. He was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “On the back of that I’d be wanting to drop myself from a tree,” he says.
Lawrie reached a nadir shortly after recovering from meningitis, he says, when he was made homeless and slept rough in the changing rooms of a disused swimming pool in Otley. “That was where I lived for three months,” he says. Now, he has a purpose.
“When you think about it, I’ve probably got 30 years left on this planet. I can do nothing about the past, but I can try to accept everything about the now and change things for the future by doing positive things now,” he says.
“You’ve heard all these cliches before, but I believe in them, you know. If I can change one or maybe five people’s lives for the better then that’ll do me. And if everyone thought like that ... ”
Not everyone has praised Lawrie as a hero. He says he has received abuse from “local keyboard warriors” and a message online that he “should be hung for trying to smuggle in a future suicide bomber”. The rise of the far right across has led to the sort of vitriol that preceded the second world war, he says.
Equally, the ongoing refugee crisis has inspired ordinary people to do extraordinary things. A woman contacted Lawrie recently, he says, and sent him £2,000 to hire a van to take aid to Greece. Her husband had cancer and she could not leave the house, but she wanted to do something to help.
Lawrie is furious at the British government, which took about 750 refugee children from Calais before . “As far as child refugees are concerned it’s just atrocious,” he says. “It makes me ashamed to be English.”
Lawrie remains in touch with Bahar, or Bru as he calls her, and her father Reza, whom he says are safe and being looked after in . A year on from his decision to smuggle the toddler out of Calais, would he do it again?
“I’d never do that again, no,” he said, nodding his head with a grin, before adding: “Well, you know, would I get a child to safety if I could get away with it? Yeah, I would.”