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The Lonely Ride Changes

  by Nadia Askar

Camel jockeys have become the poster children for the abused, overlooked by the international community because of the immense popularity of the sport. Few imagined that for more than 20 years, the sport was a center for illegal trade of thousands of young boys—most under 10 years old—who were trafficked in from impoverished areas of Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Sudan.

Desirable because they are light in weight, easy to feed and without a voice, the boys are destined for lives worse than the ones they left. Mental and physical brutality await when losing a race. There’s a lack of, or no, educational system for the boys, who are disposed of once they become too big to ride.

Ray of Hope

The sport, once the butt of worldwide jokes, is not to be taken lightly. Camel racing is now big business, with top producing camels worth over $1 million dollars. But with the vulnerable children being injured and killed each year and whispers of prevalent beatings and systematic food deprivation to reduce weight and growth, there has been mounting pressure from Western and Asian groups to impose reform.

In 2005, restrictions on the use of child camel jockeys in the UAE were imposed, stating that camel jockeys must not be younger than 15 years old or weigh less than 100 pounds. These restrictions looked fine on paper, but watchdogs reported that authorities banned photography at the racetracks to prevent continued abuse from being documented.

The UAE government then initiated a partnership with UNICEF to identify children who were placed into this environment without their consent and to repatriate them to their countries of origin at the government’s expense. The sum of $2.7 million was initially committed to the partnership. Further, UAE President HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan issued a federal law banning camel jockeys under 18 and authorizing penalties of up to three years in jail and/or a minimum fine of $13,600. Penalties are doubled for repeat offenders.

The UAE launched an anti-trafficking consciousness effort with a blanket of advertising and pamphlets distribution at airports, worksites and embassies, advising potential victims on their rights and resources and warning perpetuators on the penalties involved. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors were given anti-trafficking training, with the Dubai police taking the lead in establishing a human trafficking division to investigate crimes. A 24-hour hotline was set up for victims to lodge complaints.

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