July Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

Nine-year-old Shakil and 11-year-old Irshad were overjoyed when they were told by their parents that they would go on a journey by plane. “We had seen planes flying and used to run to catch a glimpse of this strange machine,” recalls Shakil who said that the very idea of sitting inside this ‘flying tube’ was exciting for both of them.

Shakil and Irshad, five and seven years old at the time, didn’t have any idea where the plane would take them, but they had overheard that they would be travelling to a Gulf state for a job. They had no inkling of the kind of job they would be doing.

“The family used to discuss that if the job came through, it would help them to pay back loans that they owed to a local landlord,” says Irshad.

Their family, which still resides in a shanty town in Rahim Yar Khan district in southern Punjab, had been working for a local landlord as bonded labourers for many years. The idea of sending Shakil and Irshad to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) occurred to Mohammed Siddiq, their father, when a local agent approached him and apprised him of the prospects of sending his adolescent kids to participate in the camel races as jockeys.

“You are not the only one who will be sending your children. There are so many in the area who have already earned fortunes that way,” the agent told Siddiq, who thought this might be the way to release the family from an unending cycle of debt. It would also provide the money needed for the marriages of his three daughters.

Camel racing is the favourite sport of the oil-rich Arabs. While the tradition dates back several centuries, the sadistic practice of using young children as jockeys is a recent one, dating back to the early 1970s. Every year, scores of young children between the ages of two and 11 years, belonging to impoverished families, are smuggled from South Asian countries to the UAE for this purpose. Many of these children are maimed and killed while participating in the camel races in the desert kingdoms. Their desperate parents, meanwhile, are more concerned with solving their own financial problems.

Siddiq agreed to hand over both his sons after the agent promised to pay a monthly sum of 500 dirhams each, for their services. Once the father gave his consent, the agent showed up with a scale to measure the weight of the boys and confirmed that both of them weighed below 16 kilograms.

They made an unwritten agreement, according to which the agent would bear all the expenses incurred on the journey including the money that he would pay for obtaining forged documents needed for their travel.

In no time, documents were prepared and the boys dispatched to the UAE from Karachi. Along with another four boys, the two brothers travelled with their fathers and three women who pretended to be their mothers.

Irshad said it was fun travelling in the aircraft where they were given nice food and candies. “We felt we were flying like birds,” he says about his first ever journey in an aircraft. The real test of the boys, however, began when they arrived at the airport, where they were handed over to an Arab of Bedouin origin. “I started crying hysterically when my father hugged us goodbye, but he consoled us, saying he would meet us shortly,” says Shakil. Theseboys, who were not to meet their father for another couple of years, were taken to a nearby camp, one of many in the area. Says Irshad, “Most of these camps were occupied by young children. There was a Bengali caretaker and a boy of our age from Sudan sleeping in the camp where we were housed.”

The boys were taught to graze camels as a first step towards handling them. “The Bengali caretaker trained us in camel riding and made us ride these camels at least two to three hours every day,” says young Irshad. The boys were weighed every week to ensure that their weight did not increase. According to human rights activists, the organisers of these races keep the weight of these boys under control because there is a general rule that the younger and lighter the child, the greater the speed of the camel. “They used to give us wheat-flour bread (roti) and either daal or lobia, and meat only once a week so that we should not put on weight,” says Shakil.

Shakil and Irshad ended up living in these camps for the next four years. They participated in a number of camel races and Irshad even managed to win two of the major races. “The Shaikh gave a Land Cruiser and a precious sword as a gift to our Bedouin when I won these races. I got a purse of 50 and 100 dirhams as a reward for my achievement,” Irshad said proudly.

Irshad said his brother Shakil fell down from the camel once and slightly injured his foot. He recalled another incident in which the boy from Sudan fell during one of these races. He did not escape lightly, and had his ribs broken and leg fractured. “He was sent back home, was declared unfit permanently.”

Shakil and Irshad said their Bedouin owner did not maltreat them. “But the Bedouin owner in the nearby camp was very cruel. He used to beat up the jockeys and made the boys as well as the camels stand in the sizzling heat in the desert for hours if they did not win the races,” says Irshad, recalling the ordeal of his colleagues in the nearby camps.

Lady luck, meanwhile, knocked at the doors for Shakil and Irshad when their Pakistani passports expired. The embassy officials asked to renew them suspected the boys were being used as camel jockeys, and their suspicions were soon confirmed.

Following up leads, they found two dozen others who were also employed as camel jockeys. Taking up the case with the UAE government, they managed to get the boys released. All the 23 children were evacuated and sent back to Karachi to be reunited with the families.

Some cases have been detected even before the boys tipped for the races could be flown into the UAE. However, hundreds of children continue to be smuggled every year to these oil-rich Gulf States through sea, road and air routes to participate in the races.

Other children have similar stories to tell, of families in debt and parents duped by unscrupulous agents. Most of them belong to either southern Punjab and adjoining areas, including Ghotki, Jacobabad and Larkana districts, says Mohammed Ali, field investigation officer for Madadgaar, a joint project of LHRLA and UNICEF. “We have learnt that the agents are hoodwinking the impoverished families with impunity and there is no one who is interested in taking action against them.”

camel-2-jul03The camel races begin with a colourful ceremony on tracks on the outskirts of the Gulf states with 50 or more camels competing in each standard race. The legal age for jockeys has now been fixed at 10 and weight at a minimum of 40 kilograms, but this requirement is flouted with impunity. Some of the children look barely old enough to ride bicycles, let alone camels. They are tossed on the animals’ backs by their trainers just before the start of the race. The barefoot boys, in their brightly coloured silk outfits with matching caps attached to their heads by elastic bands and batons in their hands, look like circus performers. A square foot of matching Velcro is strapped to the camel’s rump and another, smaller square, stitched onto the back of the jockey’s trousers to reduce the risk of the child falling and being trodden upon. The trainers also strap radio receivers to the boys’ chests, so as to be able to communicate with them and give instructions during the race.

The firing of a pistol usually signals the start of the race. “While camels do not run as fast as horses, they can reach speeds of 12 miles an hour,” says a Pakistani who has worked as a caretaker in one of these camps.

Four-wheel vehicles carrying trainers and the sheikhs who own the camels speed around the inside of the tracks during these races, firing off instructions to their respective jockeys over the radio. The helpless children riding the camels are often petrified. Says another local, who has witnessed these races many times, “The children are employed to scream and whip the camels to make them run faster.”

There is a great display of jubilation after each race, with the spectators rushing towards the winning camels. They hug and kiss the winning camel as well as its owners, while the tiny riders are given short shrift. The victorious camels are smeared with a reddish gold potion made of saffron and henna and then led to the lawns in front of the grandstand. The value of a camel increases exponentially with each victory; some winners are worth 50,000 to 60,000 US dollars after just one good day at the track.

Fortunes are thus at stake during the camel races. While the government does not allow betting on the grounds that it is prohibited in Islam, it showers the owners of the winning camels with lavish prizes and publicity. Prizes include luxury vehicles as well as expensive watches and cash.

These little riders, however, are treated like mere commodities. As soon as one race is over, they are lifted down from the camels, tossed in vans that ferry them back to the starting line, and saddled up for the next race, which starts within minutes.

There have been several instances where these fatigued children have fallen during the race, at times being dragged to their deaths by the loosened rope binding them to their mounts. On occasion, skittish camels have thrown off the young jockeys. Sabir, a boy who hailed from Dera Ghazi Khan, had been dispatched to the treacherous deserts of the UAE in ’98 to serve as a camel jockey. After undergoing an intensive year-long training, he was promoted to active competition. His career, however, was tragically short-lived. While spurring the camel towards the finish line, the boy lost his nerve and fell from his mount. Sher Ali, the man who took him to Dubai on forged documents, pretending to be his father, was witness to the fateful race. “He started very well, but then became terrified and lost control over the camel,” he says. Sabir’s body arrived in a wooden box in the month of October last year at Karachi airport to be transported to his ancestral village in Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab for burial.

The young jockeys face a life of danger, misery and loneliness in the training camps. They are made to sleep on the floor of corrugated iron huts, even during the sweltering summer and are underfed to keep their weight low. In this sport, 11-year-olds are deemed veterans, approaching the fag end of their careers.

The children’s safety is obviously not a priority with those who sponsor this activity. For them, a few human lives lost is a part of any game; winning at any cost is all that counts.

The treatment accorded to the camels, however, is in contrast to that meted out to the children. Special grooms are employed to take care of them and train them. A nutritionally balanced diet and exercise plan is set into place to ensure that the camel becomes a perfect racing machine.

Factories have been set up to prepare the grain consumed by the animals, where dirt is carefully extracted by machines and magnets siphon off metal particles. The racing camels are given a high-nutrition mix consisting of milk, honey, dates, barley and clover, sometimes spiked with vitamins. Physio-logists and nutritionists are hired to pamper these treasured animals.

There are an estimated 14,000 active racing camels in the Emirates. There is a substantial market for jockeys in the camel-racing countries. The children of low-paid immigrant workers in the UAE can, in fact, earn more money as jockeys than their parents can ever make as manual labourers.

Managing to stay atop a running camel is extremely difficult. Says one observer, “Since it is a dangerous game and slipping from the saddle can result in broken bones or even being dragged to death, that may be the reason that children from the poor South Asian countries are preferred.”

However, an expert contends that the Arabs prefer children from South Asian countries because they tend to be lighter than Arabs of the same age. Also, he adds, these children, who, unlike the locals are not used to riding camels, scream uncontrollably with terror during the race, which spurs the camels to running at greater speeds.

The US State Department’s annual report on trafficking in women and children estimates one to two million people are trafficked worldwide each year, of which 225,000 are from South Asia, with women and children comprising an overwhelming majority. The report states: “Trafficking is now considered to be the largest source of profit for organised crime, behind only drugs and guns, generating millions of dollars annually.”

Human rights activists believe that poverty is largely responsible for trafficking. However, there are other factors, which compound the problem such as the absence of laws specifically dealing with trafficking, corrupt security forces and porous borders. “Many of the children are so young that they are still clutching a milk bottle in their hands when they are taken away to be trained as camel jockeys,” says Amir Murtaza, an activist of Madadgaar.

The trafficking of children for the sport started on a small scale in the early ’80s when recruiting agents offered visas to those aspiring to go to the Gulf if they took a child along with them. Says one local, “At that time everyone wanted to find employment in the Gulf countries to cash in on the petro-dollars, but not everyone had the money and resources to get there; this was the easiest way to reach the promised land.” Gradually, the practice evolved into a regular business. As a result, hundreds of children were ‘imported’ to the Gulf and used as camel jockeys.

Once human rights groups got wind of this business, they raised a hue and cry, following which governments in Pakistan and neighbouring countries introduced legislation preventing children from travelling abroad unless they were accompanied by their parents. The agents then devised the modus operandi of sending children on forged documents with a woman who would pose as their mother.

Over the years, trafficking has been honed to a fine art by regional gangs who have links with various law-enforcing agencies, which is why only a very small percentage of the traffickers are apprehended.

Says advocate Zia Ahmed Awan, who heads Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), “In this sport-cum-business, where millions of dirhams are at stake, the Emirates, primarily Abu Dhabi and Dubai, actively purchase and force children to serve as camel jockeys.”

A number of missing children from Bangladesh have also landed up in the UAE to work as camel jockeys. While some of the children smuggled to the UAE are procured through kidnapping, others have been bartered in exchange for monetary remuneration by their impoverished parents in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Nepal.

Many feel they have little choice in the matter. Bashiran Bibi, a widow in her mid-thirties, has six children and no means of support. She sent her son Shehzad to the UAE with recruiting agents some three years ago, when he was six. The 7000 to 8000 rupees she receives every month since then remain her only source of income. Bashiran, sitting in her one-room house crowded with five children and some scrawny chickens, admits that, “Most of my relatives were opposed to sending Shehzad away, but they could not feed me and my children.”

Many labourers in Pakistan’s countryside, who were exposed to the petro-dollar in the late ’70s in the Gulf, also transport their minor kids to UAE markets to make an easy fortune. Says 11-year-old Rahmat Brohi, who lives in a small village near Shahdadkot Tehsil in southern Sindh, “When my uncle was taking me with him to Dubai to participate in camel racing, I ran away from the village for a week.” He claimed he was terrified at the prospect because he had heard disturbing accounts about his young cousins who had been taken to UAE for the sport. “Only last year we received the dead body of my cousin Shah Jehan,” he says.

Many of Brohi’s young cousins in the UAE are helping their families to achieve a better standard of living. They also send home items such as stereos and cameras, which they receive as gifts when they win a race.

According to reports, in Bombay, children as young as nine are bought for up to 60,000 rupees at auctions where Arabs and Indians bid against each other. Human rights organisations maintain that in cross-border trafficking, India is not only a resource country but also a transit station for children from Nepal and Bangladesh on the way to the Middle East.

According to investigations conducted by the police and the Department of Child Care and Probation in Sri Lanka, clandestine agents are known to dupe unsuspecting, poverty-stricken villagers into parting with their young offspring with promises of large sums of money among other benefits, while claiming that their children will be used as camel riders in slow-moving colourful pageants and processions.

In the past, a number of cases have been reported of child smuggling to the Arab states by sea from Makran and the Shah Bandar coast in southern Pakistan. Says an official of the Edhi Foundation, “Many of those children who are taken through coastal routes get sick in the boats and some of them even die during these harsh journeys.”

When the camel-racing season in the UAE began last year, Pakistani authorities busted a couple of gangs before they could make it to the UAE. A bunch of five children, all younger than seven, were arrested after immigration officials in Islamabad stopped them. Police detained a couple posing as the children’s parents and two other people believed to be involved in an organisation supplying child jockeys to the Emirates.

Immigration officials said suspicions were aroused when they noticed that the children seemed scared as they prepared to board a flight from Islamabad to Dubai. “When they arrived near the immigration counter, the children started crying,” immigration officer Gulzar Ahmed said. The couple tried to console the children but “we doubted from their body language that they were the real parents,” Ahmed said. Under questioning, the couple, who are husband and wife, admitted to police that they were taking the children to the United Arab Emirates to be used in camel racing.

Likewise, another group of 14 people, including seven minor children, were apprehended in the month of September last year from an apartment in Shah Faisal Colony in Karachi’s central district, just two days before they were to catch a flight for Dubai on forged documents. Two months earlier, six couples along with over a dozen boys — all between five and seven years of age — were arrested by personnel of law-enforcing and intelligence agencies on the charge of attempting to smuggle the children across the Pak-Iran border. Their destination, too, was the Middle East and its racecourses.

Haji Bashir, a member of one of the gangs busted in Karachi, was employed for several years as caretaker in a camel stable. He visits his village near Multan in southern Punjab every year and returns to Dubai with as many children as possible, earning a fortune from this business. This despite the fact that he pays between 6,000 to 8,000 Pakistan rupees per month to the parents of each child. Haji Bashir, who is currently in police custody in Karachi, defiantly asks, “What else can one do in the face of poverty? When people don’t have enough money to eke out a living, this is the best way to supplement one’s income.”

Since there is no telephone network in most of the villages from where the children hail, and most of them are unlettered, they record messages on audiocassettes, which they send to their parents. Shahul listens to her son Mukhtiar who has been in Dubai for the last four years, “It’s me, Mukhtiar… ma, don’t worry. It’s really me. You may not recognise my voice, it has changed.” The hapless mothers listen to the voices of their children, rewinding the tapes time and again and breaking down when they listen to the tale of their hardships.

Sometimes, the younger children who have lived in the UAE for several years forget their mother tongue and become more fluent in Arabic, the language of their captors. Many of the boys kidnapped from South Asian countries face problems once they are repatriated to their home towns as they can barely communicate with their relatives.

A case in point is that of six-year-old Saddam Hussein, kidnapped from Shahdadkot tehsil while on his way to his school and smuggled to Dubai in 1996. He was forced to compete in the camel races for at least three years. Saddam’s family learnt of his whereabouts when one of the locals from his village saw the boy riding a camel in the UAE and, recognising him from the photographs that had appeared in Pakistani newspapers, informed them. “However,” says Hayat Shaikh, “When we approached the UAE authorities, they were reluctant to cooperate.” The return of the boy was made possible only when former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, made a personal request to Sheikh Zayed.

When reunited with his parents, Saddam was hardly able to speak his mother tongue, and was more comfortable talking in Arabic. Recalling his experience in broken Sindhi mixed with Arabic, he said that he had witnessed many children sustaining serious injuries when they fell off the camels during races. “Several died of their wounds,” he revealed.

Slavery and forced labour is prohibited under the law and legislation against the trafficking of children and women has been promulgated in South Asia in recent years. Buying, selling and trafficking or dealing in slaves is punishable for life and sometimes with a death sentence. As yet, however, no major punishments have been awarded to these traffickers, although several have been arrested. According to Mustafa Mahesar, a lawyer in Pakistan, “The traffickers either exploit loopholes in the system or use money and influence to avoid conviction.”

Says Malik Tariq, an FIA assistant director in Islamabad, “Policing the trade in children is difficult because there is no specific law against adults transporting children overseas. Most alleged smugglers were charged with immigration violations, which carry a minor penalty.”

Moreover, allege human rights groups, while child-trafficking gangs have been busted many a time in Pakistan and other Asian countries, the investigations never go beyond the local buyers and sellers.

Discloses Asghar Ali, Deputy Superintendent of the Police at Al-Falah police station in Karachi, who is investigating the case of one of the recently apprehended gangs, “Preliminary investigations often reveal that very influential personalities from within and outside the country are involved in this trade and those who are arrested by us are no more than their touts.”
Sources in the police admit that the big guns that run these dens either buy out the police or intimidate them through their powerful connections.

Human rights groups maintain that, prior to 1993, on average a dozen innocent children lost their lives every week due to the dangerous sport of camel racing. The situation improved to an extent after UAE President, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, imposed a ban on the use of children below 10 as camel jockeys. A Camel Race Association was formed to organise the sport along the prescribed code of conduct.

Nevertheless, according to available reports, the rules are often flouted with impunity. Comments a human rights activist, “Where camels belonging to the Sheikhs are concerned, no rule really applies.”

Ironically, although the involvement of Arab influentials in child trafficking for camel races is beyond doubt, the authorities in South Asian countries have never lodged official complaints with the Arab countries. Says an observer, “Evidently, the poor South Asian countries cannot afford to risk jeopardising their relations with these rich countries.”

Human right activists, however, believe that the global trafficking of women and children continues unabated simply because this trade has proved even more profitable than the smuggling of arms and drugs. They disclose that the chain of beneficiaries includes recruiting agencies, promoters, transport agencies, different government agencies and the families of the children, all of whom reap rich rewards from the trade.

In the words of a human rights activist, “While the traffickers must be apprehended and tried for the horrendous criminal offences they commit, nevertheless the trafficking of women and children cannot simply be dealt with as a criminal phenomenon. It is directly related to the socio-economic realities of the society and compounded by the forces of the free market economy.”