Rights group: Boys as young as 10 still forced to race camels in Emirates

By Barbara Surk, AP
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rights group: Boy jockeys in Emirates camel races

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Young boys are still abused as jockeys in camel races in the United Arab Emirates even though the practice has been banned in the Gulf country for years, an international rights group said Wednesday.

Anti-Slavery International said it has photographs showing boy jockeys — some apparently only 10 years old — at a 12-race competition held last month in the Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi.

Camel races are immensely popular in the Arab countries of the Gulf and for years young boys from Sudan and south Asia were prized as jockeys for their light weight and small size.

The Emirates nominally banned the use of children in 1993 and then in 2005 moved to actually replace them with robots, repatriating hundreds of boys to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania.

Representatives of the London-based group attended the Feb. 9 racing event at the Sweihan track in Abu Dhabi, however, and said they took photos of children “as young as 10-years-old” racing camels.

Several children told the group after the race they have been racing for five years. Others said they participated in at least three races a year.

Children interviewed by the group spoke Bengali, Urdu and Hindi, the statement said, adding that “many appeared to be South Asian and a minority Sudanese.”

Emirati officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Unidentified officials that spoke with the group, however, maintained that no laws had been broken and the jockeys were Emiratis racing with their parents’ consent. They denied children were trafficked and said “soft” sand and the reduction of the race from 12 kilometers to three had made racing safer.

The use of children as jockeys in camel races “breaks international laws that protect those under 18 from dangerous work no matter what country they are from,” Catherine Turner, Anti-Slavery International’s Child Labor program coordinator said.

“Soft sand will not prevent a 10-year-old child racing at up to 50 kilometers an hour from seriously hurting themselves or worse if they fall,” she added.

The Emirates recently set up a program with UNICEF to reunite the former boy jockeys with their families and has provided them with a range of social and educational services in their home countries. It has also set up a compensation fund.

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