Stolen, smuggled and sold: the frightened boys forced to become camel jockeys in a foreign land

For one so small, Amir Hossein Rubel knows far more than any child should about the world. He knows about loneliness, hunger, extreme danger and fear. Above all, he knows about betrayal. He, and scores of other little boys like him, have been bought and soldfor sport.

Rubel is 12, although he looks seven. He is at the beginning of life but has the hard-bitten air of someone reaching its end. Rubel's ordeal continues now, many months after his rescue. In his damp-blistered safe house in Dhaka there is an iron grille and a padlock on the entrance and a guard on the gate. No one wants him to fall back into the hands of those who preyed on him.

The predators in question are the organised gangs who spirited him away from his family in Bangladesh, smuggled him to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and set him to work as a camel racing jockey. He was sold into the service of an extremely hazardous sport where the animals who run change hands for 100 times more than the monthly pittance earned by the children who ride them.

Rubel was five when he was abducted. He could not ride a bicycle, let alone an animal four times his height, galloping at a potentially lethal 30mph. Nor could Mintu Shuel. He was four when he was heaved onto a camel with a whip in his hand and a walkie-talkie strapped to his chest so that his trainers could bellow out orders for him to ride faster. Now 10, Mintu has the wizened air of a professional. His memory of race days suggests that the use of infant jockeys was scarcely a state secret. There were "huge crowds" who "had big cars and video cameras".

What Alom, another survivor who is now 13, recalls best is the hunger. The smaller the jockey, the swifter and more profitable the camel. This is a world where pampered champion animals can fetch $1m (£590,000) and are trained in their own lap pools. But,God forbid if the boys should put on an extra ounce. The three boys now live in sheltered accommodation, survivors of a trade which human rights organisations say still continues.Yet the authorities involved continue to turn a blind eye.

Rubel unfolds his memories in scraps, a grim little collection from the darkest corners of a child's mind. He answers questions dutifully, but volunteers nothing. He neither flinches nor warms to a pat on the arm and to other attempts to comfort and reassure him. He avoids my gaze. His misery, it seems, cannot easily be shared with an outsider.

But slowly the pieces fall into place. He remembers the day a woman befriended his penniless mother and then moved into a hut in his village. He remembers goingto the same woman's house to play with her son and staying the night. The next thing he recalls was waking up to find he and the woman were on an aeroplane. Rubel remembers how, once in Dubai, the same woman pretended she was his real mother. He was handed over to some men and remembers how the soles of his tiny feet burned on the sand when they took him out to the desert to ride the camels.

The training was hard and frightening. "If we fell off the camels, the trainers would beat us. Mostly they were rude to us. Only sometimes they were nice."

Rubel once saw another child slip from his perch behind the camel's hump as it was bumping along. The boy fell to the ground and was trampled by the hooves of the other animals.

Rubel and his fellow child jockeys slept on the ground in tents, rising before dawn to tend to the camels. Occasionally they were allowed to buy sweets with the tips they were given for winning a race.

Listening to Rubel, or Amir Hossein Rubel as he is formally known, you have to remind yourself he is a child. Nothing about his early childhood in the deserts of the Middle East resembles that of a Western child. There were no toys, no televisions, no books, no computer games, and no love. There was the odd game of cricket in the dust, using an old piece of wood for a bat, with other infant jockeys. But that was it.

Meals for his group of jockeys, taken three times a day, were spartan. Rice and bread were strictly rationed by their "masters", the trainers, especially on race day.

The camel jockey issue has been threatening to dent UAE's image as the thriving business nexus of the Persian Gulf, an oasis of five-star beach hotels, shopping malls and golf courses. Yet authorities continue to ignore the scandal.

Last year UAE bowed to pressure and reinforced a previous law banning jockeys under 15, promised a crack-down and introduced new, albeit derisory, penalties. Anyone caught racing camels with an under-age child must pay a mere 20,000 dirham fine (£3,200) for the first offence.

The Bangladeshi government, meanwhile, reacted coolly to questions on the subject. It is eager not to upset the UAE, which is one of the biggest sources of the $3bn annual remittances it receives from an army of expatriate labourers. Kamrul Islam, the minister in charge of expatriate welfare, said thatany cases that arose would be taken seriously. But he insisted that there was no new evidence.

The human rights group Anti-Slavery International insists that boys from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sudan are still being trafficked. "We continue to receive reports," said Catherine Turner, a spokeswoman. "Children [who have returned] commonly confirm there are other young boys still in these camps, suggesting this is the tip of the iceberg."

Human rights workers at the Bangladesh National Women's Lawyers Association (BNWLA), take the same view. The non-profit organisation runs Rubel's shelterfor two dozen boys in Dhaka and also seeks to trace, repatriate and rehabilitate trafficked women and children. "It is still definitely going on," said Salma Ali, BNWLA's executive director. "We know this from our sources in Bangladesh, from the calls to our hot-lines, and from our own contacts in the UAE. It is a very profitable business, which is difficult to stop."

Previous assurances that the UAE no longer has any child camel jockeys have turned out to be untrue. Earlier this year, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was told by Khalsan Khamees, the head of the UAE's Camel Racing Federation, that it was "absolutely impossible to find a camel jockey who is under 15 years of age and it will never, never happen." The following day a government minder took ABC to film a race but mistakenly went to the wrong one. The crew filmed young boys being hastily loaded onto a bus to get them away from the camera.

But even if such denials were true, there are plenty of unresolved issues. Repatriation rates for trafficked Asian children are less than one in 10. Where are all the other children who were sent off to the races in the UAE?

"We think some of them become trainers to other boys," says Mominul Islam Shuruz, who works for the BNWLA, tracking down the traffickers. "Some return to Bangladesh because they are injured or become too old. And some of them just disappear."

He is convinced that the trafficking to the UAE continues, using a variety of routes from Bangladesh via its neighbours, India and Nepal. Matters are not helped by extensive corruption among border and immigration officials, who can be bribed to ignore the fake parents with forged documents who arrive with stolen or bought boys.

Mr Shuruz found Rubel's trafficker, a Bangladeshi woman, and struck a deal with her to bring the boy home last year. She is now in custody. The BNWLA believes there are still about 600 Bangladeshi children in the UAE who were sent there as jockeys under the age of 12, victims of extreme poverty, over-population, and greed.

A lack of birth records plays a critical role. For the past five years the Bangladeshi government, supported by UNICEF, has been building a national births register. But nine out of 10 babies in Bangladesh still do not have a birth certificate. It is easy for children such as Rubel to be sold into slavery in the desert when no one in authority knows they exist.