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United Arab Emirates - Camel Jockeys 


Broadcast: 25/02/2003
Reporter: Geoff Thompson



THOMPSON: The Arab Emirates is a model Muslim country. Okay so it's undemocratic, but it's moderate, peaceful and a thriving exponent of free trade but here there is also a thriving trade in human beings who are anything but free. Thousands of foreign boys, some as young as two, are being smuggled into this country to effectively grow up as bonded slaves and all in the name of sport.

A new day in the desert and the ancient animals of this arid land are ready for a race. The sport of camel racing has been around for as long as wealthy Sheikhs have been competing for power and prestige. 

There is one rule for winning; the smaller the jockey, the faster the camel and so kids are the jockeys of choice. They're not locals but foreign children too young to know much at all except that they are a world away from home. 

YOUNG BOY (FORMER JOCKEY): This is the worst job in the world. The people of this country, I give them work but they make me a slave. 

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: These camel jockeys are the most unfortunate children in this world. They are stories to you, to people like you they are simply stories and they are commodities for these Arab Sheikhs.

THOMPSON: Can I ask you why you're taking the boys away?

[Police officer chasing and covering the camera with his hand saying "No, No, Cancel".]

THOMPSON: Why are you doing that? We have permission.

This is a story the rich Sheikhs donít want the world to see.

Why are you stopping us filming?

THOMPSON: Dubai is the glitz capital of the Persian Gulf. Its wealth is built on a brew of oil and anything goes capitalism. Here power is measured not just by wealth but prestige proven at the camel races. This sport is a multi-billion dollar industry but it's built on the backs of the world's poorest children trafficked from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sudan and India. 

If this young boy looks like he's hanging on for dear life, that's because he is. Falls can mean serious injury, even death. 

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: It is like the Greek Gladiators fights when the lions are chasing the human beings and people are enjoying this thing, it is like that.

THOMPSON: This man has inside knowledge of the child jockey racket. Working in the UAE for a foreign government, he agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. 

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: These people are neither Muslims nor human, they are just some cruel creatures who have no hearts other than their own interests.

THOMPSON: Those interests are showcased at the trophy room at the UAE's Camel Racing Federation. Here the race winning prowess of the UAE Sheikhs is honoured in gold but the camel jockeys donít get a mention.

In 1993, the UAE banned the employment of jockeys below the age of 15, a ban that was reinforced last September with higher penalties. Now if you believe the Federation's head, Khalsan Khamees, child camel jockeys donít even exist.

KHALSAN KHAMEES: Absolutely impossible, absolutely impossible to find a camel jockey who is below 15 years of age and it will never, never happen. Law enforcers are strictly putting this rule into practise and you will see it for yourself when you visit the racing venue tomorrow and tomorrow you may ask anyone you wish to ask about this. 

THOMPSON: It was a challenge Khalsan Khamees might wish he hadn't made. The next morning a UAE government minder took us to film a race but through a bungled arrangement, we were taken to a race we were not meant to see. There were young boys everywhere, some barely beyond toddler age.

Seemingly surprised by our presence, the police suddenly began removing the younger kids from the crowd of jockeys as they edged towards the starting line. They demanded we hand over our pictures of the children. 

I'm not being searched, sorry, we're here as official guests.

UAE GOVERNMENT MINDER: Yes I know but as I told you earlier try to avoid filming kids.

THOMPSON: Well you didnít tell us that actually, we said we were going to come and film a race.

UAE GOVERNMENT MINDER: Okay, but you are concentrating may be on something like which the UAE is trying to fight.

ANGRY RACE ATTENDANT: People are taking pictures here and there, even internal areas. I have told them to take pictures outside, not in the compound. Look! They are taking pictures of the bus! 

UAE GOVERNMENT MINDER: No, no don't go on the bus because these guys are younger than the age of what we said earlier yesterday in our interview and they are under the age of 15 so they are not allowed to go in the race.

THOMPSON: So why can't we film them?

UAE GOVERNMENT MINDER: Well because they donít want you to film them, that's all.

THOMPSON: While they were strict with us, there is scant evidence of official action against those forcing children to race camels. In this strange wonderland, it's the animals who are treated like spoilt kids. Worth up to $1 million on the market, prized camels are taken for daily dips in their own custom built swimming pools. Everything is catered for, including the best medical care that money can buy. It's a standard of care the camel kids will never know.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: Even if a camel jockey lost a match, he is punished.

THOMPSON: How is he punished?

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: He's deprived of his salary, he is deprived of his food, he is whipped, he is also abused physically, mentally.

THOMPSON: The camel kids live out here in the desert. Days and nights are spent not in the care of parents, but under the guard of strange men. With a hidden camera, we visited one of their ramshackle huts, where two Pakistani boys spent the few hours between races sleeping on the floor. These camel facing professionals are aged just 5 and 7.

So just confirming, he's from Pakistan? [Geoff Thompson points to the first boy] 


And you're from Pakistan also? [Geoff Thompson point to the next boy].

GUARDS: Yes. Brothers.

THOMPSON: Pakistan also. Brothers. And both are camel jockeys?


THOMPSON: And he is aged 5 and he is aged 7 years old and they've been here for 2 years.

GUARDS: 2 years.

THOMPSON: And they race four times a week?

GUARD: Four time a week.

THOMPSON: For 400 dirhams for 1 month?


THOMPSON: That's about 200 dollars, a wage which goes to the adults who brought Sammy here. Sometimes they are parents but often they are impostors, traffickers profiting from this kindergarten aged child's race winning skills.

It's from a world like this that young Jakir has come. He may be playing now, but until a few weeks ago, camel racing was the only childhood he had ever known. He thinks his age is 8 but he doesnít know for sure. He remembers only that he was stolen from Bangladesh and smuggled to the UAE at an age when he couldn't even dress himself, he was 2.

JAKIR: I donít know, I was small when I was stolen. I donít know anything. I didnít know how to ride camels, I didnít know any work. When I grew big, I was made to do work. I started working. The master beat me like a dog. 

THOMPSON: Jakir do you ever get sad about your life?

JAKIR: I feel dead with all the work. My whole body is covered with sweat and feels weak. 

THOMPSON: Jakir's camel racing days are now over. He was taken into police custody when a man posing as his father was arrested with a fake passport. Now after six years as a camel jockey, Jakir is going home.

[Now in Bangladesh]

THOMPSON: It may be among the poorest nations, but Bangladesh is indisputably rich in one resource, human beings. But the most densely populated country on earth cannot provide anything like enough employment opportunities so here it's not difficult to find parents willing to gamble their children on thin promises of overseas work but some parents are never even given that choice. Their children are simply stolen from a country where it can be impossible to prove that they ever existed at all.

We arrived in the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka just days before Jakir was due to return but plans to film his arrival were foiled by an anxious government. Thirty percent of Bangladesh's wealth comes from the wages of its expatriate workers in countries like the UAE Ė income it does not want to jeopardise by pushing too hard on the camel jockey issue. 

Eventually Bangladesh's State Minister for Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment did arrange for us to meet with Jakir as long as he could join the brief picture opportunity. While Jakir struggled to remember a city he left six years ago, the Minister struggled to defend the country which is one of the largest employers of Bangladeshi labour. 

We've been to the UAE and we've seen these boys working as camel jockeys, some younger than him. What do you say to that, they're still working as camel jockeys?

QUAMRUL ISLAM, STATE MINISTER: We have not seen. We have not seen frankly speaking.

THOMPSON: But we have seen it.

QUAMRUL ISLAM, STATE MINISTER: Anyway if it is younger than that, the law is passed now, I believe that in the future it will never happen and I believe this will be implemented very strictly.

THOMPSON: You have confidence in the government?

QUAMRUL ISLAM, STATE MINISTER: I have confidence because the law has been passed by their own. That's why they want to implement it definitely.

THOMPSON: Would it concern you if the law wasn't being enforced?

QUAMRUL ISLAM, STATE MINISTER: Definitely it will concern us but I'm sure it will be implemented properly.

THOMPSON: Jakir meanwhile is bound for this shelter for traffic boys. These boys are rehearsing a play depicting how they were lured into the camel jockey trade.

BOY 1 IN SKIT: Hello, boss.


BOY 1 IN SKIT: We have found two chicklings, very young, absolutely superb.

BOY 2 IN SKIT: Well done! Have all arrangements been made to fly them out tomorrow night?

BOY 1 IN SKIT: Yes boss. 

BOY 2 IN SKIT: So there is no mess up. I donít like to be involved with mess ups!

THOMPSON: Every former camel jockey here has some experience in injury or abuse. Mamon was 5 when he was trafficked to the UAE. It was an injury that ended his camel racing days.

MAMON: I was sitting on a camel and it was very wicked. When the camel runs, there is a rope dangling in front. The rope swung back as soon as the camel was slapped to run and my leg got caught in it and it was cut.

THOMPSON: The true tragedy of the camel jockey racket is found in Bangladesh's vast and waterlogged countryside. Out here poverty stricken families are perfect prey for traffickers. 

Ali Islam has returned home to his parents after spending years in the UAE riding camels . . . a bite from one of them permanently disfigured him. His other scars aren't so visible.

LATIF ISLAM (ALI'S FATHER): I put him in a school after his return, but he refused to go. He only wants to play with friends. He won't even eat properly. 

THOMPSON: At Rajashahi on Bangladesh's border with India, UNICEF and local government agencies are registering births, part of a national plan of action which is perhaps Bangladesh's best hope of guarding against the camel jockey trade. Five years ago, almost no births in Bangladesh were registered allowing children to disappear without any official trace. Now in some parts of Bangladesh, up to seventy percent of new births are recorded. It's a beginning but a long way from a solution. Tens of millions of Bangladeshi children remain vulnerable to what is effectively a slave trade.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL: If there is no demand, then there will be no supply. Simple as that. So pressure should be put on these Gulf governments not to use children as camel jockeys and not only on paper or as promises, they should work in close cooperation with international organisations.

THOMPSON: But the racing continues and as long as self-interest is driving this game, a different future for these children is not worth betting on.

ABC Online
More News at The Shocking Violations of Children's Rights




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