BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France (Reuters) - A British ex-soldier who tried to smuggle a 4-year-old Afghan girl into Britain at her father's request told a court in France that he was sorry but that he could not bear to leave the child to sleep in the cold in a squalid migrant camp.
Rob Lawrie, 49, faces up to five years in jail and a 30,000-euro (£22,513) fine for aiding illegal immigration, a case that goes to the heart of Europe's dilemma over how to deal with its worst refugee crisis since World War Two.
"It was very cold ... the little girl, she fell asleep on my knees, and I couldn't leave her. I'm sorry," the former carpet cleaner told the court.
Lawrie was a volunteer in a makeshift migrants' camp known as "the jungle" in Calais, northern France, when he met Bahar Ahmadi, known as Bru, and her father.
"It's a very dangerous place, it's dangerous and cold," Lawrie told the court.
There are around 4,000 migrants at the unofficial camp. Many want to make it to Britain, trying night after night to jump onto trucks or trains or even walk the 31-mile (50-km) undersea tunnel to Britain. At least 16 have died.
Britain and France have jointly tightened security around the harbour and train-tracks over the past months, but the camp remains.
When Bru's father asked to Lawrie to take her to relatives in Britain, he refused several times before relenting on Oct.24 as nights grew very cold in the camp.
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.
At the hearing, the public prosecutor recommended Lawrie either be condemned for breaching migration rules or, if the judges decided to acquit him for that, that he be sentenced to a 1,000-euro fine for putting the child's life in danger since she was in the cache of the van, with no seatbelt.
Earlier on Thursday, Lawrie told reporters he had acted on the spur of the moment. Alternately defiant and emotional, he said: "I don't understand why other people around the world are not getting as emotional as me."
He had arrived at the news conference carrying the little girl, who was smiling and eating candies.
Lawrie said he was unaware of the Eritreans being at the back of his van, and the authorities are not pressing charges.
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.
"We feel pressure growing on those who help refugees, pressure from the police, from the state," Stephane Maugendre, a human rights activist who is also a witness during the trial, told Reuters.
"But as the migrants' situation gets worse we also see more and more solidarity," he said.
Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky