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Crimes of compassion for refugee solidarity

United Kingdom

Rob Lawrie and Bahar, a refugee child, at the Calais 'Jungle' ©

Human rights campaigner and volunteer Rob Lawrie speaks to Lydia Noon about people smuggling, bike riding and refugees.

What motivated you to work with refugees in France?

A few years before the mass movement of people to Europe, I became angry with the way the UK was being run and with bankers gambling on our economy. I turned my life around and decided to help others instead of helping myself. I started running a soup kitchen in Leeds, Northern England and that’s when I first visited Calais refugee camp. But when I saw Aylan Kurdi on the beach last September – an innocent child who drowned and washed ashore – I stopped everything in my life to go to the camp to help.

You’ve said that your attempt to smuggle four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi, an Afgani refugee from the recently-demolished Calais camp to the UK was a ‘crime of compassion’. What do you mean by that?

The media came up with that term, but it stuck with me. It was a crime but it was done out of compassion – there was no planning, money or coercion involved. Adults are fleeing terrible situations but most can survive. Children are so vulnerable from every angle. Bahar lived with her father in Calais and she had close family in the UK. When I saw her one afternoon in October 2015, I made a spur of the moment decision – to bring her to safety. I was caught at the border and she was taken back to Calais. She and her father are now trying to get to the UK legally but, as of now, they are still in France over a year later – it is a long process.

A migrant walks past a burning makeshift shelter set ablaze in protest against the dismantlement of the camp for migrants called the 'Jungle' in Calais on the second day of their evacuation and transfer, France, 25 October, 2016. © REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The year 2015 saw an outpouring of support for refugees while 2016 has seen a shady political deal with Turkey and the rise of Fortress Europe. What do you think 2017 holds?

More of the same, unfortunately. With the Brexit vote and right-wing parties succeeding across Europe, there is little appetite to help refugees. The UK might change if, as I hope, the Tory party have underestimated British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. He may not be a designer leader but he tells the truth. He’s seen the refugee camps and I think he has a real passion to help so things could change.

Would you call yourself an activist?

What does that mean? If that means smashing things up and throwing stones at police, then no. I’m a dooer: I identify who needs what and I get it to them. I raise money by taking part in endurance bike rides and holding talks around the UK and still volunteer in France and Greece.

A film is being made about your experience, what can you tell me about it?

I was approached by a filmmaker who is a former refugee from Kuwait. He lived with me for four months and came with me to Calais and Dunkirk. I’ve been given editing rights to the script which is great. The film – called Mr Rob – is not a documentary so I hope people who don’t usually watch things like this will.

Does humanitarian aid have its limits?

So much money has gone into refugee camps, but after a few weeks that money is lost, used up. The money I receive from the film will be used for direct action – to fund lawyers to help bring unaccompanied children to the UK. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year, it’s that no-one is the little man – anyone can challenge the status quo.

Do you believe in an open border policy?

No, but I don’t think we should be uncompassionate either. It shouldn’t matter if someone is an economic immigrant or a refugee or whatever. The UK doesn’t have streets lined with gold but it does have a responsibility to the people who live in the countries we bomb and invade.

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