First Published: 2004-01-27

Gulf states aim to halt camel jockeys trafficking

UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia implement strict laws banning exploitation of children as camel jockeys.


Middle East Online

By Habib Trabelsi - DUBAI

Camel racing is a cherished tradition in Gulf Arab monarchies

The Gulf Arab monarchies, where camel racing is a cherished tradition, are trying to bring order to the national sport in the face of protests over the trafficking of children as jockeys.

The US State Department and human rights groups have raised the alarm over the exploitation of small children by traffickers who pay impoverished parents a paltry sum or simply resort to kidnapping their victims.

The children, mostly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Pakistan, are then smuggled into the Gulf states.

They are often starved by employers to keep them light and maximise their racing potential. Mounting camels three times their height, the children - some as young as six - face the risk of being thrown off or trampled.

Local newspapers have reported several accidents in recent years, some of them fatal.

Associations such as the Ansar Burney Welfare Trust International and Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid, based in Karachi, have urged the International Organisation for Migration to help repatriate the children.

They say many children have been either tossed or dragged to death in the races after being partially dislodged from the rope binding them to the camel.

In a 2001 report, the State Department said labour laws in the United Arab Emirates were "sometimes enforced against criminal trafficking rings".

But no action was 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.

Emirati authorities immediately renewed a law, ignored since 1993, banning the use of children aged under 15 and weighing less than 45 kilograms (100 pounds) as jockeys.

First-time offenders face a fine of 5,450 dollars, with a one-year ban from races for camel owners. A third offence would warrant a prison sentence.

Emirates Camel Racing Federation director Mubarak Ahmed al-Khili said on Sunday that the law was being "strictly implemented".

"From now on, jockeys, especially from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Sudan, must each be accompanied by a guardian, normally their father. They undergo rigorous training before taking part in races," he said.

Khili said they also have to wear helmets for races and protective gear.

In Doha, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, president of the organising committee for races, said Qatar enforces a strict ban on child jockeys unless they are accompanied by a guardian.

"Our religion forbids us to exploit or starve children," said Sheikh Hamad, adding that races were organised to "keep alive a bedouin tradition in a region where the camel is considered the best companion of the man of the desert".

In Saudi Arabia, the law is even stricter.

Apprentice jockeys have to be at least 16 years old, under guidelines laid down by the National Guard which supervises camel racing in the oil-rich kingdom.

To gain professional status, jockeys must be over 24, undergo a medical examination and present a certificate from a legal guardian.


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