Dating death in desert
Sport of sheikhs rides roughshod over juvenile camel jockeys

AFP, Dubai

Five-year-old Imran from Bangladesh and his brother Ismail, eight, have worked as racing camel jockeys for the past two years in blatant violation of the Emirati laws for a sport patronised by the rulers.

The boys' mother, Beauty Begum, is now planning to whisk them out of the country, whatever the risks.

"My husband and I were both offered jobs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by an agent back home in Bangladesh. We paid him but when we got here, there was no work for us, only for the boys," she says.

"My sons together bring home 300 dirhams (82 dollars) a month, which is not enough for the four of us to live," she said.

"As for the children, they are given no education, have no time to play and I only see them at night. They work every day, without weekends or holidays. We can't let our children do this anymore."

Set against Dubai's modern skyline, a camel owner in the white dishdasha robe and headdress of Gulf men hands three tiny Pakistanis 10 dirhams (three dollars) after a morning workout around a 10-kilometre (six-mile) racetrack.

He followed the training session held under the relentless desert sun from the air-conditioned comfort of a 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser, driving along the outside of the rails.

The helmeted but bare-footed boys, smiling, leapt off their mounts and bundled into the back of a pick-up to head off over the sand dunes with a dozen camels in tow.

Under a 1993 law, jockeys must weigh at least 45 kilograms (100 pounds) and the oil-rich UAE bans the employment of children under the age of 15.

In the often-dangerous sport of camel racing, in which accidents can prove fatal, both rules are widely ignored.

The latest US State Department human rights report says UAE labour laws are "sometimes enforced against criminal trafficking rings" which steal children or buy them from impoverished parents in the Indian subcontinent.

No action is taken "against those who own racing camels and employ the children, because such owners come from powerful local families that are in effect above the law", it said.

The Emirates Camel Racing Association, contacted by the wire service, said it would be unavailable for comment before the October 1 start of the season.

The Gulf monarchies treasure the races as a vital part of their heritage and tradition. Children are the jockeys of choice because of their light weight, but local boys do not figure among the several hundred jockeys.

"The highest authorities in the UAE, powerful people, are involved. Nobody dares to talk. As for the police, they are sympathetic but helpless," an Asian diplomat told the wire service, asking not to be identified.

He said high stakes were involved for Gulf nationals, but also pointed a finger of blame at governments back home.

"We are talking about poor governments which are scared to cause a fuss for fear of losing labour markets in the Gulf and vital sources of remittances," the diplomat explained.

"If you see them, five- or six-year-old boys with broken ribs from falls, many of whom have even lost their native tongue after having lived away from their parents, you will be in pain.

"We are closing our eyes, like ostriches hiding our heads in the sand. It's shameful," he said.

During races, prestigious events often attended by Gulf rulers and sheikhs, the boy jockeys are strapped to the back of camels to make sure they stay on.

"Bleeding due to constant pressure on the back end and smashing of genitals is common... Most jockeys become impotent because of the friction," according to an attendant at camel races in Qatar where Sudanese boys are used.

And the boy racers, who can be provided by traffickers for around 5,000 dollars apiece, are deliberately underfed to keep their weight down.

In a campaign against camel racing, the London-based Anti-Slavery International organisation has urged the Emirati government to enforce existing laws and conduct regular inspections.

The home countries of the children, meanwhile, should "fight bribery and corruption in the police force and amongst immigration officials to prevent traffickers paying off those officials," it says.


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