Muslim Uddin Ahmed DHAKA
Nazmul was barely five years old when he was spirited out of a Dhaka suburb to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to work as a child jockey in camel races, a favorite sport among Gulf sheikhs.
After nine months of camel racing, the Bangladeshi boy was seriously injured from a fall off a camel. With both his kidneys damaged he was brought back to Dhaka where he died on April 17, the latest victim of a sport that exploits children from low-income South Asian families. The boys are prized for their low weight.
Nazmul's death has led to demonstrations in Dhaka by foreign and local organizations, including the United Nations Children's Fund, protesting against the traffic in children from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Campaigners say children are usually kidnapped but sometimes also sold by desperate parents. Traffickers posing as parents take children out on family passports and visas, often traveling across porous borders to neighboring India.
UNICEF and non-government campaigners say the children often die or are severely injured as they are tied to the camel's back to scare the camel into running faster. The UAE bans the use of children below 45 kg in weight or 14 years of age, but the law is flouted with impunity.
Public protesters took to the streets on May 16. Among them were 100 children. The youngest, only seven years old, had narrowly escaped becoming a victim himself. They had been rescued from India by campaigners and human rights organizations who want the oil-rich Gulf states to stop using children as camel jockeys and their own governments to crack down on child smugglers.
"Unfortunately the UAE ban has not been fully enforced which the fate of Nazmul bears witness to," said a memorandum signed by the protesters.
Major newspapers have stepped in, reporting that Bangladeshi diplomats in the Arab world overlooked many complaints about child jockeys.
An estimated two million Bangladeshi wage earners work in the Middle East, around 250,000 of them in the UAE, an important source of foreign exchange to a poor country. Muslim monarchs also give financial aid to Bangladesh.
The rescued boy jockeys gave harrowing accounts of life in the Gulf.
"I had always to stay in the desert. They would not give me enough water to drink lest I should become overweight to be a jockey," said 12-year-old Sajib. As he grew up, he became unfit to ride and was brought back by those who took him abroad and sold into bondage.
In an editorial protest, The Daily Star newspaper declared: "What could be more of an outrage than such willful cruelty towards a minor?" The Dhaka daily urged both the Bangladesh and Middle Eastern governments to take drastic steps to halt the abuse and what it called the "entertainment of the rich."
Although figures on casualties are hard to come by, the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association says a sample survey conducted by it in 300 of the country's over-70,000 villages in 1997 shows that more than 7,000 children are trafficked out of the country every year.
"Of these, boys are sold as jockeys while the girls land in brothels," said the Association's Salma Ali.
A 1996 report by UNICEF and SAARC (the inter-governmental South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) estimated that around half a million women and children had been smuggled out of Bangladesh up till then.
Nasimur Rahman of the UNICEF Dhaka office described the situation as "grave."
Campaigners worry that a stringent law in Bangladesh, the Suppression of Women and Children Repression Act, has failed to make a dent in the problem.
Experts think merely enacting laws, however tough, cannot end the scourge. With Bangladesh ranked among the world's 49 least developing countries, abject poverty makes it easy for traffickers to lure children from desperate parents.
According to Labor Minister M.A. Mannan, an estimated 6.3 million of the country's 31 million children aged 5-14 years work for a living.
Acknowledgement to Gemini News Service