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10 November 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:29pm

The man arrested for trying to take an Afghan refugee child to Britain is no “people smuggler”

Former soldier Rob Lawrie's instinctive act of humanity in Calais contradicts the shameful logic of deterrence and the xenophobia and outright racism that often drives it.

By Matthew Carr

Last week a number of media outlets reported the story of Rob Lawrie, the former British soldier, who was arrested by French border police in Calais for trying to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into the UK. Lawrie was not the kind of “people smuggler” we have come to expect from media coverage of Europe’s refugee crisis. He went to Calais for the first time this summer to take supplies to the migrant encampment known as “the Jungle” after seeing the photograph of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.

Whilst in Calais Lawrie met Bahar Ahmadi and her father in the camp, and he eventually agreed to smuggle her to Leeds, where she has relatives living legally. His motives were straightforward; he was reluctant to leave a four-year-old child he had become attached to in conditions that he compared to “Mumbai rubbish tips”. As a result, he now faces the prospect of a five-year jail sentence and a £21,400 crime for facilitating illegal immigration.

Some readers may admire Lawrie’s actions and others may think that he deserves punishment. But Lawrie’s “crime of compassion”  also raises the question of why a child the same age as Aylan Kurdi should be languishing in a migrant shantytown, when Bahar Ahmadi and her father could have been allowed to go to Leeds and live with relatives who were already resident there.

In the course of researching my book Fortress Europe, I often found myself asking such questions about the men, women and children who I encountered trapped outside Europe’s borders or living in legal limbo inside them. Like Rob Lawrie, I was initially stunned and incredulous at the stories I encountered. Like the Catholic community worker from the Democratic Republic of Congo and suffered horrific sexual tortures after his father was murdered by a rebel militia, who fled to the UK and lived for the best part of a decade in destitution in Leeds because his story was deemed ‘not credible’ by the Home Office.

Or Hassan, the Afghan father-of-two with a thick Yorkshire accent who had lived in Bradford for 12 years before  serving six years for assault. On serving his sentence he was deported back to Kabul, and made his way by to the UK illegally. When I met him in 2013 he had spent three months in a migrant squat, after trying to get back to the UK a second time, and he had accepted a voluntary repatriation package back  to Afghanistan, with very little prospect that he would ever see his children again.

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I soon came to realize that such stories are not occasional accidents or mistakes caused by bureaucratic inertia or overzealousness. The routine cruelty and inhumanity that one so often encounters on Europe’s borders is not just an accidental consequence of bad polices; but an intentional result of a ruthless policy of deterrence that is crucial to Europe’s undeclared war against immigration – and the policy of the UK government in particular.

The essential logic behind this policy assumes that “economic migrants” and refugees migrate because of certain “pull factors” that can only be reduced by creating a daunting succession of physical and bureaucratic barriers that reach both across and beyond  Europe’s borders. By making migratory journeys as  hard and difficult as possible, governments believe, migrants will eventually send a message back down the line that will stop people coming.

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This deterrent purpose is rarely spelt out overtly. Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay came close last year when she justified the British government’s refusal to commit itself to search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean because of the ‘unintended pull factors’ that such operations supposedly generated. But more often than not British politicians will  insist on Britain’s generosity and the UK’s proud tradition of offering sanctuary to “genuine” refugees.

Such generosity is not absent, but too often, government policy is driven by a single overriding objective – to reduce the numbers of people coming, and these priorities often rely on a petty institutionalized cruelty and inhumanity.

This is why the British government will not do anything to help migrants trapped in Calais, regardless of their motives for coming or their age, and why a four-year-old girl cannot be allowed to live in the UK even though her relatives can. It is why non-British spouses cannot live in the country or be reunited with their “Skype children” unless they earn more than the average British wage.

The British public is generally unaware of these undeclared policies and their devastating consequences, and there are undoubtedly some sections of the population that would support them and demand more of the same. But Rob Lawrie’s instinctive act of humanity in Calais is one of many hopeful displays of solidarity and empathy this summer, which contradict the shameful logic of deterrence and the paranoia, xenophobia and outright racism that so often drives it.

And for that, he should be congratulated not punished.

Fortress Europe: Inside the War Against Immigration by Matthew Carr (Hurst £9.99). The author is doing an event with Maya Jaggi at Waterstones in Trafalgar Square, London, on Thursday 12 November.