Ban on child camel jockeys sends a brutal trade underground

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The Independent Online

Sarfraz, at 10, is too big to ride racing camels any more. After six years in bonded labour at stables and tracks on the wealthier side of the Arabian Sea, he was deported to Karachi. He has brought two ugly, ridged scars with him. They are testament to a terrifying career, the bites inflicted by angry dromedaries.

Sarfraz, at 10, is too big to ride racing camels any more. After six years in bonded labour at stables and tracks on the wealthier side of the Arabian Sea, he was deported to Karachi. He has brought two ugly, ridged scars with him. They are testament to a terrifying career, the bites inflicted by angry dromedaries.

The camel-racing circuit may be the epitome of high life for wealthy sheikhs to show off champion camels, but it provides a bleak existence for its child jockeys. Sarfaz is among 340 small boys who have found their way back to Pakistan and the shelter of the rehabilitation centre in Karachi, funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has recently banned this brutal form of child labour.

The younger and lighter riders are, the faster camels can run, and the optimum weight is about 33lb. "Children are given too little food," Sarfaz told the Pakistani senator Tariq Azeem at the opening of the clinic. "When there are no camel races, we are used for hard labour."

A typical working day for these imported Asian children lasts 18 hours. Since the UAE banned underage jockeys on 31 March, young riders are being repatriated to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Yemen and Sudan.

But many jockeys still small enough to race have been whisked into hiding across the UAE frontiers so their minders can evade fines of 20,000 dirhams (£2,860) or imprisonment. Clandestine races are reportedly being staged on remote desert flats. Though gambling is outlawed, lavish prize money is awarded by corporate or tribal sponsors, and underground bets are no secret.

Officials believe at least 2,000 child camel-jockeys from Pakistan remain in the UAE, but children's rights groups put the number far higher and fear that, under the new ban, prices paid for compliant youngsters will climb, thereby fuelling the black market.

At least 16,000 camels race at 17 official tracks in the UAE, and many more run in Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. To avoid scrutiny at airports, where Pakistani children will be required to carry passports, overland routes for human trafficking are opening on pilgrimage treks from Baluchistan through Iran.

For the newly liberated camel-jockeys, most who were either kidnapped or sold by poor families to smugglers, happy childhoods will not instantly resume. In Karachi, hundreds of boys are being examined by doctors who will treat spinal injuries or lance septic saddle sores.

In many cases, the inner thighs have been rubbed raw, and vulnerable genitals with no support have suffered damage. Other boys were thrown off mounts three times their size and dragged along the tracks or trampled.

The boys have to be DNA- tested before they can be returned to their families. Usually sold between the ages of three and five, many no longer recognise their relatives after years away from home and cannot even identify which region of Pakistan they come from.

Most are believed to from the poor regions of Upper Sindh or the southern Punjab, but now speak Arabic. Family members also must undergo DNA screening before they can claim a boy. There is a risk unscrupulous strangers will pose as long-lost aunts or uncles to exploit these unwanted youths as a source of cheap labour or as rent-boys. Senator Azeem said that many parents were in prison, so most returned boys are homeless and need clean lodgings, medical treatment, food and education.

Ansar Burney, a children's rights advocate who toured Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates this month, came back shaken by the wretched living conditions of the Asian child jockeys. He called their cramped quarters "private jails". The tin shacks with no electricity are unbearable in desert temperatures which reach 52C. He says he saw daily abuse and sporadic torture.

Last month, in recognition of the sport's inhumane aspects, Qatari sheikhs introduced a prototype robot jockey named Kamel. The Swiss-made mechanical boy weighs 60lbs and requires an outrider in a car to operate its joystick.

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