Using small children as Camel Jockeys, for the purpose of Camel Racing was rampant in the UAE. Small children from countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh etc were kidnapped and trafficked for this purpose. Though there is now an official ban on using children under 18 in these races, government data indicates that such cases were reported in India even in 2012. In this two part series, we look at the issue and also the cases that were reported. These cases give rise to more questions than answers.
What do you expect from a typical two-year-old? To be able to walk & run properly. But, immigrant two-year-old boys on camel farms in the UAE in the 1980s had a completely different childhood.
They were expected to ride and single-handedly steer Camels running at the speeds of 40-65 Kmph to victory, in competitive races spanning 10km racetracks. Yes, you read it right. Two-year-olds who do not have the motor abilities to kick a ball in the right direction were expected to be Camel Jockeys.
The lucky ones learnt to hold themselves to the camel long enough, and the unlucky ones died trying to do so.
UAE after striking gold with their petroleum reserves dramatically changed from being a subsistence economy to an economic superpower. This accelerated growth ushered in a new way of life for the Emiratis, transforming their traditional Bedouin culture to a more urbanised consumption led lifestyle. Realising that the dramatic shift was creating a disconnect between the newer and older generations, reviving the Bedouin culture became a priority for the UAE citizens.
Apart from the traditional music, poetry, and dance, camel formed a very important part in the Bedouin life. Before the advent of modern devices, camels were a crucial source of income and also a means of transportation for the Arabs. Naturally, in their attempts to revive the culture, Camel was a central theme and the traditional camel races found their way back.
During the olden days, in a society where the camel was an essential entity in daily life, camel races were held as part of festivals or celebrations. But, in the urbanised 1980’s camels were transported in trucks to the newly built race tracks to participate in intensely competitive races. The stakes were high in these camel races. The winners were given cash prizes and luxury sedan cars, which isn’t even the main allure for the participants. The key takeaway for the winner of these races is a rise in their social standing and the pride of a owning a winning camel.
In such a competitive atmosphere, it became imperative that the participants found able and nimble jockeys to steer the animals to victory. The single most important characteristic of a good camel jockey is, light weight. Lesser the weight of the jockey, lesser is the pressure on the animal and the faster it runs. Keeping this in mind, even in the olden days, agile youngsters of the family were chosen to ride the camel. But in the new competitive races, these jockeys were replaced with children, who obviously weighed very less. Thus began the vicious practice of child trafficking from poor countries to UAE to serve as camel jockeys
The Inhuman Treatment meted of Children
Boys aged between 2 to 10 years were trafficked from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, and Mauritania to UAE to work as Camel Jockeys. According to a UNICEF report, in 2005, about 3000 children were found working on the camel farms, of which 2,800 (93%) of them were below 10 years.
Most of the children were sold by poor parents who couldn’t bear the burden of raising a child or who badly needed extra income to run their households. Shockingly, most of the parents had no idea what their child had in store once they reached UAE. Agents in interior districts of these countries acted as the middlemen between camel owners and parents of the children. The parents were often misled by them that their child was playing and kept well on the camel farms. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Children lived on the camel farms 24 hours a day. When they were not exercising the camels, kids were made to work on the camel farms.
While the camels were fed milk, ghee, almonds and dates, all the children got was biscuits or boiled rice with lentils. Children were purposefully underfed and regularly starved to keep their weight low.
For as trivial as a boy eating dates meant for the camel, he could be caned and in worse cases but rarely, could also be given electric shocks as punishment.
Children were subject to rampant sexual abuse, inflicted upon them by agents and older children in the camel farms. According to a study, children were sexually abused in 75% of the camel farms.
They were forcibly tied on the camel’s back and made to race the animal. Many children fell off the camels in between races, but nobody came to their aid and were left to the mercy of god until the race concluded. Many children died from the fall, some more from the stampede of animals running on the race track.
Children were regularly injured in these races but were provided no medical attention whatsoever, many of them are now left permanently physically disabled.
Away from home, in a land that doesn’t speak his language; the kid is put through an emotional hell. Many of the repatriated children reported developmental issues and all of them were scarred for life from the inhuman treatment meted out to them.
The horrors the little kids have been put through seriously make us question the existence of humanity in people. A practice that started out as an effort to reconnecting to one’s cultural roots proved to be a curse for a generation of children.
Uninhibited selfishness and unquenchable greed of humans is at the heart of these dreadful acts. They didn’t mind using toddlers as camel jockeys as long as they were not their own blood & the agents and middlemen appear to have sworn by to extract the last rupee from the poor.
Exploitation of the Highest Order
Any article on child jockeys is incomplete without the mention of Rahim Yar Khan. A study conducted by ‘Save the Children’ organisation in 2005, estimated that 15,000 children were trafficked from Rahim Yar Khan District in Pakistan, alone (from beginning till 2005). The study also states that the agents and middlemen were cruel extortionists who pocketed the 3-4 lakh rupees, the Sheikhs handed them as compensation cum travel expenses for the child, and in return the agents again demanded money from parents of the boys as travel expenses. The poor families often had to take a loan to meet these travel expenses. Not stopping at that, the agents stole half of the boys’ meagre wages of 400 Dirham per month. The measly 200-250 Dirham that reached the boys’ families at the end, hardly made any difference to their lives.
The poor parents were at the mercy of agents/middlemen. When some of the parents came to know about the truth of camel farms, they wanted to bring their children home, but the agent wouldn’t let the child go unless he was bribed. In some cases when the children were injured, the compensation that the Sheikh paid them never reached them, again thanks to the agents.
All the perpetrators involved in this racket deftly redefined Darwin’s theory of ‘survival of the fittest’ to ‘survival of the ruthless’
Several attempts were made to put an end to this ghastly practice. In 1993 the UAE government passed a legislation banning the participation of children in Camel Racing. The Camel Racing Association, the apex governing body for the sport, also responded by placing a ban on small children and those weighing less than 45 kg from taking part in the races. But these laws were bypassed very easily by the collusion of officials, sheikhs and agents. Children were transported to UAE with the help of a ‘fake’ family whose entry was facilitated by the corrupt immigration officials.
This went on unchecked for years, despite vocal protests from organisations such as Anti Slavery International, UNICEF, Save the Children and human rights activists like Ansar Burney among many others.
Finally in 2005, after mounting International pressure, the UAE government issued a new federal law prohibiting children below the age of 18 years from participating in the races, and also signed an agreement with UNICEF to provide 2.7 million USD as aid in facilitating the rehabilitation, repatriation and reintegration of child jockeys to their home countries.
Rehabilitation Efforts and the Present Scenario
“Rival baby rider kills his fellow rider in spite”
“There was a child in the camp and because he wanted to leave the camp and go to Dubai, one of the racetrack owners ran over the child in a truck and killed him”
“If they were over-weight, they were given electric shocks twenty times a day to reduce their weight. They were given half a bread to eat.”
“They don’t know how to sleep on beds, how to take a bath, how to go to the toilet; they don’t know how to use the cupboards”
This is how the poor children spent their lives as camel jockeys. The 2.7 million USD in aid by the UAE government seemed like a cruel joke in the face of what thousands of young children were subjected to.
Rehabilitating and reintegrating children who were witness to such agonizing incidents, into the mainstream society is nothing short of an impossible task. The challenges are huge, quoting Mr.Ansar Burney from a newspaper report: “The police ask me for the name of the child, the father’s name, the name of the place and the name of the owner of the camp, so it’s very difficult to find this information for each and every boy; These boys arrived at the racetrack when they were six months old.” According to Mr.Burney, few boys have any idea who their real parents are and where they come from.
Well meaning NGOs like Ansar Burney trust, UNICEF are doing their part in rehabilitating these children to their parents. They have set up shelters for the jockeys in Abu Dhabi where they teach them basic education, encourage them to play among themselves and generally live the life of a child. According to UAE’s estimates, in 2005, there were 3000 camel jockeys on the farms and by March 2006 when the initial repatriation programme had ended, UNICEF reported that 1,075 children had been repatriated to their homes. According to authorities rest of the children returned by means other than UNICEF, but even then the officially repatriated numbers are only 1/3rd of the total number of children, leaving room for anxiety and doubt about the fate of remaining children.
There have also been many unconfirmed reports that some children are yet to receive the compensation and reintegration benefits sanctioned to them.
Even after 2005, reports of child trafficking for camel jockeys crop up every once in a while. Ansar Burney trust reported that child trafficking thrived in backward regions of Southern Punjab of Pakistan and that these child jockeys were used in much lesser known camel races till as late as the end of 2009.
In 2010, Anti Slavery International’s delegates attended a camel race in Abu Dhabi and suspected that the children riding the camels were underage and were not Emiratis as the officials claimed.
But there’s one bright spot in all of this gloom, technology has come to the aid of these children and robot jockeys have replaced kids now. Light weight robots that vaguely resemble a tiny child are widely used today as camel jockeys. This is a welcome move, and according to news reports the use of robot jockeys has substantially brought down the practice of using child jockeys.
Also, almost all NGOs and UNICEF unanimously agree that UAE’s efforts have drastically reduced the use of child jockeys in races. Due credit has to be given to Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the President of UAE who passed the landmark legislation in 2005 and to the UAE authorities for taking stringent action.
All said and done, the only way such acts can be effectively prevented and put an end to is by addressing the problem at its core. Parents of the trafficked children opined that creating awareness about the issue in trafficking hotspots, limiting the role of the agent were crucial to ending this practice.
Importantly, rehabilitation efforts from all the stakeholders should be tightened, ensuring that every affected child gets a fair chance at living a good life. Many reports claim that children repatriated to their home countries did not get their reintegration benefits, the work of UAE government in completely exonerating themselves from gruesome crimes against these children will be an unfinished job until every affected child is tracked and assisted in rebuilding their lives.
The Indian Context
In India, trafficking children for child jockeys hasn’t been as rampant as it has been in Pakistan or Bangladesh, but some cases have definitely been reported. A 1997 Frontline article mentions an instance where Bangladeshi, and Indian children were being trafficked from Bangalore to UAE. Other than that and a couple of other stories, much hasn’t been written in Indian print media about child jockeys.
But Factly team stumbled across a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report which shockingly mentions the kidnapping of 70 persons from Gujarat in 2012 for Camel racing. The veracity of this report and what it means in the larger context of crime reporting shall be dealt in the subsequent article.
In Part 2, we look at the data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). It is intriguing that the victims in India (as per NCRB data) are from a very different age group and gender defying global trend.
The World of Child Labor: An Historical and Regional Survey
Ron Gluckman – Death in Dubai
UAE defies ban on child camel jockeys – The Independent
Child camel jockeys find hope – The BBC
Thousands of Boys Trapped as Camel Jockeys in Middle East – Voice of America