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Putting the Reins on Camel Jockeying By: Karin Kloosterman and A. Salome Jessel
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 09, 2005

Sex slaves, camel jockeys, robots, titanium camel saddles, and rich oil Sheiks. It all sounds like the makings of a new James Bond film. Sunday, however, these were very real issues on the plate of a Persian Gulf country and The United Nations Children's Fund.

As part of International pressure to crackdown on the exploitation of child jockeys, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed an agreement with UNICEF Sunday, stating that the Government in partnership with UNICEF would provide protection and support to children exploited by camel racers. UNICEF has agreed to donate $2.7 million to help disband child labor in camel farms and to help relocate and rehabilitate the children.

The agreement was a roll-out from a joint meeting held earlier this month by the UAE Ministry of Interior, UNICEF, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) with government and non-governmental delegates from
Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania. Officials reviewed the steps they will take in order to remove kidnapped and trafficked children from camel racing in UAE and assist in the children's safe return to their home countries.

Despite what this new law promises, child camel jockeying has been illegal in the UAE under various international and domestic laws since 1980. As recently as 2002, the UAE Government stated it would ensure the implementation of regulations prohibiting the use of children as camel jockeys younger than 15 years old and lighter than 45 kilograms. Serious penalties were to be made against offenders, explained Beth Herzfeld from UK-based Anti-Slavery International.

But the penalties were never imposed. Herzfeld’s organization sent a photographer on location to document just how bad the situation had become.

"Some would argue, how one can tell legal age versus illegal. In 2004 our photographers captured images of child jockeys as young as four and up to age 10,” Herzfeld claims. “We’ve seen children tied onto the camel and have heard reports of Velcro being used on a child’s trousers to tack him onto the animal’s hump,” she adds.

Children that are trafficked are terrified and mistreated while being used as camel jockeys and they are deprived of food and water prior to a race to keep them as light as possible.

Camel racing in Gulf countries is a local pastime and has grown into a multi-million dollar business in the UAE. Although UAE is one of the most developed countries in the Gulf region, UNICEF reports that the country's child exploitation levels are believed to be the worst. Young kidnapped or trafficked boys make the best jockeys as their lightweight frames match the structure of a camel’s back. The children sit perched behind the hump of the camel while directing the animal in the race.

Undernourished boys from
Bangladesh and Pakistan have been the victims of choice, as their hungry bodies are already smaller than boys from other areas such as Sudan and Mauritania. The jockeying leaves some severely injured. Others have died.

UNICEF expressed that the boys are being kept in deplorable conditions and are also turned into sex slaves. An entire subculture of child slavery thrives on camel farms where boys, and sometimes girls, are forced to train the animals and work as servants.

A UNICEF study on trafficking in human beings states that the number of African countries reporting trafficking of children is two times the number of countries reporting trafficking in women. The organization stresses that, in the UAE, the problem isn’t just that the children are being used as jockeys, but that child jockeys are being subjected to exploitation of the worst kind, explains Geert Cappelaere UNICEF senior advisor for child protection for the Middle East and Northern Africa.

In child jockeying, the hazards of child labor goes well beyond the limits of child labor and this practice is widespread throughout all the Gulf countries.

Some children are kidnapped from their homes; others are purchased from parents who are led to believe their child will be given a life of prosperity. Some children are sold in a two-for-one deal, where a child comes as bonus fodder after the sale of a camel.

Asked why the UAE does not recruit their own young children as jockeys, Cappelaere responded, “For the same reason Jordanians use Egyptians as garbage collectors.”

According to Wolfgang Friedl from UNICEF public relations in Jordan, “The UAE is a rich country which gives its children the opportunity to be educated at an early age, while others as in Bangladesh have no option but to sell their kids to get some money up front."

Because the population of the UAE includes a high immigrant population, some of these children have actually migrated with their families who work on the camel farms. This fact, as well as the lack of birth registration in poorer countries, has enabled the child kidnapping and smuggling operations to proceed with relative ease. UNICEF has known about such transactions for about 10 years, and recently with the help of rights organizations and mainstream media has been able to pressure the UAE government to once again make a promise to abide by laws set by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

However, the media was quick to be dazzled by a new robot being developed as a substitute jockey, while EAU authorities remain relatively slow in dismantling the children from the farms. UNICEF officials who are on location are hoping that concrete measures will be taken by the government this time around.

Camel farm owners have until May 31 to register every child under the age 18 on the farm. Those that don't will face fines and possible imprisonment. In the meantime, retinal eye scanners are in place at UAE border crossings to detect any registered child in an attempted smuggling out of the country and relocated to where camel racing is permitted.

Cappelaere was hopeful of the recent progress but realistic in just how quickly things will be changed. He believes it will take over a month to register all the children on the farms and that the complete elimination of child jockeys in the Gulf region will take a couple of years. He is well aware that the trafficking of tiny camel jockeys may simply turn into a black market trade, but he is confident that the UAE’s commitment to cracking down on this problem is sincere, and that this country will serve as a model to all the others.

"We don’t have control over all the aspects and we won't be monitoring everything. Our strong alliances with the governments of the receiving countries should help this move forward,” Cappelaere explained.

In the meantime, a new kind of saddle made of titanium is being developed in
Australia. The strong and lightweight device may be able to hold a small adult of 50 to 60 kilograms. Given the riches in the Gulf countries, Cappelaere predicts a saddle could be developed within a year's time.

When asked what will be more effective, the saddles or the robots, Cappelaere replied -- "My concern is that the exploitation of children stops."

Herzfeld found the media’s focus on the robot solution to be misguided. All the UAE needs to do is to implement its laws, she said. There is nothing wrong with an adult person as a jockey, she adds. They don’t need to use robots or children.

Herzfeld’s main concerns are whether the UAE will really pull through on its promise, and what will happen to the children who are supposed to be repatriated. Some children were abducted or sold at less than two years of age and so have very little memory or none at all of life in another country. Some of them believe they have two names and two fathers and some have forgotten their mother tongue.

Two transit facilities in
Abu Dhabi have been set up to accommodate the repatriation process. There, children will be fielded as they await return to their respective countries. Children will be educated, given medical treatment and have their current family situation investigated. UNICEF hopes to track down birth parents.

For Cappelaere, who has lived in the region three years, Monday was the biggest achievement he saw in the Arab world toward protecting children’s rights. Aside from CNN and Reuter’s coverage of the event, the UAE Government was swamped by questions from the Arab press, such as Al Jazeera.

"I see that there is questioning going on in their respective regions,” Cappelaere said, “The people in the Gulf it seems are finally paying attention to child protection issues and exploitation.” He believes that UAE gave honest answers to the Arab and foreign press.

During this meeting the UAE Government was not only open to addressing problems of camel racing, but open to discussion of sensitive problems like child and domestic violence. “We believe that child camel jockeying is our window for getting these issues exposed. Gulf regions have yet to deal with violence in schools, sexual abuse, exploitation of children, and police violence,” he continued.

Cappelaere expects children to turn up from a whole range of countries such as
India and Eritrea, Yemen, Oman, Ethiopia, and Somalia. All of these countries are on his radar, including Iran he said.

UNICEF has tracked down child trafficking from
Yemen to Saudi Arabia but when prompted about numbers Cappelaere acknowledged that they don’t really know what is going on, and they won't know until the registration is complete. Official UAE Government statements report about 3,000 illegal children in the country. UNICEF believes the number to be much higher at 10,000 as many children become jockeys through transient, illegal parents.
“We need to go beyond the signing of agreements,” Friedl notes. “By 2006, children travelers will have to carry their own passports for entry into the UAE.” Owners of stables are now forced to register and remove their child slaves and the wealthy farm owners will be charged to rehabilitate the children.

September 1, 2005 the Camel Racing Federation in the UAE has promised that there will be no more use of child jockeys. Robot jockeys and titanium saddles aside, the next month’s turn of events will show how committed the Gulf area is to dealing with child jockeying and children’s rights.

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