Independent Appeal: A race of young slaves

Young boys from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan are still being sold as camel jockeys, but thanks to Anti-Slavery International the cruel and often life-threatening trade is finally being tackled
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Amir is a victim of the trade in child camel jockeys. But he cannot tell his story. When he opens his mouth, he can only make incomprehensible sounds.

Sold by his parents at just five to take part in races in Dubai, he fell off the back of a camel in a race and was badly trampled by the camels running close behind. His face was shattered so badly he cannot speak any more. He is blind in one eye. He is just six years old. His life is ruined before it has even begun.

Today, child camel jockeys are not allowed in Dubai any more, because of a prolonged campaign by Anti-Slavery International, one of the charities featured in The Independent's Christmas Appeal this year. Campaigning to change the law, and advocacy on behalf of vulnerable people, is one of the key aspects of the agency's work.

But such advocacy is not yet over, according to Tanveer Jahan of Anti-Slavery International's local partner in Pakistan, the Democratic Commission for Human Development (DCHD).

The town of Rahim Yar Khan sits on the edge of the desert. It is a dirt-poor sort of place but dotted around the town are several palatial residences. Those are the hunting lodges of wealthy Arabs from the Gulf states, who come here to hunt the abundant wildlife of Pakistan's desert. But, according to Ms Jahan, that is not all they hunt.

They also employ local agents to find children to work as camel jockeys. The use of children may have been banned in Dubai and the rest of the United Arab Emirates but that is not the end of the story. Before the ban, there were believed to be 3,000 child jockeys in the UAE - most of them from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan. But only 1,000 ever returned home.

No one knows what happened to the others, but the use of child jockeys has not been banned in all countries. And, according to Ms Jahan, they are still recruiting in Rahim Yar Khan.

Children are favoured as jockeys because they are small and light enough not to slow the camels. But the conditions they face are grim. Mubasher Hussain was sold by his parents when he was seven years old. Today, aged 12 and safely back in Pakistan, he tells his story in the sunny garden of the government school where he is catching up on lost years.

"My parents told me they were going to perform the Haj [the pilgrimage to Mecca], but they took me to Dubai," he says. "There was a sheikh, Mohammed Khalifa. My parents gave me to him. They told me to stay with the sheikh while they performed the Haj but they didn't go. My father got a job in Dubai, working in a slaughterhouse."

That is a common arrangement, according to Ms Jahan. The camel owners agree to arrange visas for the whole family if they sell one son as a jockey. As Ms Jahan puts it: "The child is the main bargaining chip".

For the family, it is an opportunity to work in Dubai, where they can earn far more than at home. But for the child, it is the start of a nightmare.

"I spent one month learning to ride the camels. When I fell off, the supervisor used to beat me, sometimes with a stick. I was scared on the camel. I was very high up and the camel went very fast. But after I learned how to ride I was not so scared.

"We worked every day from before dawn till eight at night. In the morning we had to feed the camels and clean the stables. When it got hot in the middle of the day we had to move the camels to the shade. In the afternoon we had a couple of hours to play.

"Then in the evenings we had to practice riding. I got to see my parents once a week. I was allowed to go and visit them.

"They gave us very little food. The sheikh wanted to keep us small for riding the camels, so they wouldn't give us enough. I was hungry most of the time, but my brother used to sneak some food to me in the night."

Still Mubasher is one of the lucky ones. He never fell in a race and he escaped serious injury.

Nasir Hussain, no relation, was not so lucky. He was sold at the age of five. He fell off the camel in the middle of a race and was trampled. "I was terrified," he says. "My father was there watching the race and he ran on to the course to save me. My leg was badly hurt so he picked me up and carried me off the course.

"They took me to the hospital. I was told the sheikh paid my hospital bills but he never came to the hospital. No one from the camel stables came."

Today Nasir is seven years old. His leg is still badly damaged. It is much shorter than the other, and he walks with a severe limp that will never go away. His toes have splayed out unnaturally to support his weight. After the accident, his parents were able to bring him back to Pakistan without any objection from the camel owner. But for Mubasher, who was never injured, it was not so easy.

"After two years my parents went to the sheikh and told him they wanted to take me back to Pakistan," he says.

"He refused. So my parents went to the police. They raided the stables and rescued me. The supervisor who used to beat me, who was named Akil, spent 15 days in prison. The police took me to my parents, and they brought me back to Pakistan."

But the problems do not end with the children's return to Pakistan. During their time as camel jockeys, they do not go to school. When he returned to Pakistan at the age of nine, Mubasher could not read or write.

He could not even do simple maths sums. As a result of campaigning by Anti-Slavery International and DCHD, the Pakistani government has agreed to a special programme to help the camel jockeys catch up in schools. They are given extra tuition in special classes to help them make up the lost time, and a small scholarship of 600 rupees (£6) a month.

According to government figures, 336 children returned to Pakistan, but Ms Jahan says her organisation's research shows the real number is closer to 600. "Some are kidnapped and smuggled, but most are sold by their parents," she says.

"They sell them because of poverty. If a family has five or six children they will sacrifice one for the others. But it's all a pipe dream: they don't get much money. Most of the money goes to the agent who finds the child. And the child's life is totally ruined."

For Ms Jahan, the struggle goes on. She is determined to track down where the thousands of missing child camel jockeys have gone, now the practise is banned in the UAE, and get them home. She also wants to win the returned children more financial support.

"A lot of these children who have fallen off the camels need reconstructive plastic surgery for their injuries," she says. "But you can't get plastic surgery for 600 rupees a month."

The school where Nasir and Amir are learning today is a dusty open yard. There is no school building and the children sit in the hot sun on the ground. This is a government school but there is not enough money for anything more.

When we ask Nasir which he prefers, Pakistan or Dubai, where he was abused and terribly injured in his fall from a camel, his answer is surprising. "Dubai," he says. When we ask why, his answer is simple. "There is electricity there. And good buildings."

In the corner, Amir sits silently. No one knows how he feels about Dubai, where he lost one eye, and the ability to speak.