The Truth Behind Camel Jockeys in the UAE
by Michelle Schrum
In the United Arab Emirates, camel racing is a national sport. Much like the U.S. with horse racing, it is a expensive pastime. The only difference is the animal, of course, and its rider. On any horse here in the U.S. one will see a young man as the jockey. In the UAE, the camel jockey is in fact a very young boy. These boys, some as young as 4 years old, are forced to work up to 18 hours a day in the scorching heat of the deserts. The rich sheiks that are the heart of this business deny that this is slavery. In 1993, under pressure from the West the UAE banned the use of child jockeys under 15 years old and under 100 lbs. The ban was only on paper and was not followed through. The ban was reinforced in 2002 but it was, once again, not followed through. It is estimated that as of 2004, there were more than 20,000 children working as camel jockeys all over the Middle East – majority of whom had been smuggled from South Asia and Africa. Yes, winning these races is great fun and can bring fortune to those who bet, but at what cost? Is it worth losing the children over?
The camel jockeys that are used are young, usually foreign, boys used in the human trade business. These boys were taken from their homes in places such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. They were either taken by force or sold by their own families for as little as 500 dollars. The family would never usually receive the money, although. They were usually cheated out of the money. The places, like Bangladesh, were poor but were very populated. This created the perfect atmosphere for the sheiks to go in, oppress the inhabitants, and take the children without any repercussions. Pakistan and Bangladesh are too poor and corrupt to stand up for the jockeys and seek help from richer countries like the U.S. The U.S stopped pressuring the UAE after they reinstated the ban in 2002 but it was not followed through and that was brought to their attention. Ansar Burney is a human rights advocate who has snuck over 100 child slave jockeys out of the camps and the country. In November 2004, Mr. Ansar Burney met with His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. At the meeting a decision was taken by the UAE leadership to ban the use of underage camel jockeys and enforce the law with a punishment of fine and imprisonment.
This line of work was very dangerous for the boys. They are deliberately underfed and malnourished to keep their weigh down and allow the camel on which they ride to run faster. Some are fed only three biscuits a day with water, while others are given dirty and unhygienic food – worse than what is fed to the camels. If that does not bring their weight down, they are forced to wear metal helmets to make them bleed and reduce weight that way. If a boy grows about 50 lbs., the trainer decreases his food.
The children are fastened to the camels with Velcro, but the ride is so rough that many fall and are gravely injured – dying a few days later due to the lack of medical attention or care. Some die on the spot by being crushed under the feet of racing camels and some are even killed by the owners of the camps because they wanted to leave. Those who survive, bare scars of their torment and permanent disabilities.
The boys were to reside in deserts camps stationed by the race areas. In these camps there was no furniture, no electricity, and plenty of barbed wire. Some children sleep on the sand. These boys are also treated like slaves. They wake the children at 3 A.M. to practice. To wake them, they beat them with whips. They trained in 110 weather. Also, they would do any kind of dirty work. If the child does not work, he gets tied to chains and hit. The trainers would also rape the children brutally at night and during the day. These children are left hurt, beaten, and defenseless with no one to help them.
From the work of Mr. Ansar Burney, over 100 child slave jockeys have been saved. These jockey often do not remember who their parents are or where they came from. This renders them orphans. There are few and rare camel jockey orphan shelters that serve as a rehabilitation centers for those camel jockeys who were affected by this tragedy.
After Ansar Burney met with Sheikh Mohammad, a center was established in Abu Dhabi under the authority of Ansar Burney Trust; it has the capacity to house 400 children and provide them with clean food and clothing, a good education, excellent medical treatment and a safe shelter. After 4 months, these children are to be repatriated back to their home countries.
The poor children of Pakistan and Bangladesh were ripped from their homes and what they knew to become tortured and killed as camel jockeys. These young kids are sold for a small amount of money by their own families. Camel jockeying was very dangerous for them being so young. They were exposed to malnutrition, beatings, lack of medical attention and rape by their trainers, and they were put in danger as they were poorly attached to the camels and risked falling off and getting trampled. The UAE had tried many times to avoid the ban on child slave jockeys, but being selfish, did not think of the children and only the camel racing. Finally someone is investigating this and will put a stop to the oppression of the poor boys from Pakistan and Bangladesh forced to ride camels for no pay and bad benefits.