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Last Updated: Friday, 4 February, 2005, 15:36 GMT
Child camel jockeys find hope

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Dubai

Child camel jockeys in Muscat
Child jockeys get ready to race in Muscat
Children from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan are still being smuggled to the United Arab Emirates to work as camel jockeys, despite a law passed two years ago banning their use.

It is illegal for race clubs to use jockeys younger than 15 or weighing less than 45 kilos.

But young children can still be seen at racetracks across the UAE, and aid workers estimate there are up to 40,000 working across the Gulf.

Now the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi has given his backing to a new centre, set up to find and rehabilitate child camel jockeys.

Starting over

One of its residents is Akbar. He's mad about football and the best thing about his new home is the chance to play with other boys.

There was a child in the camp... because he wanted to leave the camp... one of the racetrack owners ran over [him] in a truck and killed him

Akbar is eight years old, and has spent almost all his life living and working as a camel jockey at a race track in Abu Dhabi.

Four days before I met him, he was picked up by police and brought to the new rehabilitation centre, the brain-child of human rights activist, Ansar Burney.

"We are giving them an education," Mr Burney tells me, as he shows me round the neat classroom and air-conditioned bedrooms.

"How to sleep, how to take a bath, how to go to the toilet: they don't know how to use the cupboards; they don't know how to sleep on beds! This is all new for them."

Children in the bedroom
Many of the children had not slept in beds before

But for many children starting a new life also means dealing with problems left by their old one.

Tucked into a corner of the complex is a small, well-stocked clinic.

It is not uncommon for child jockeys to fall off and be injured while racing, and their illegal status means race track owners are often reluctant to take them to hospital.

Instead, says Ansar Burney, the boys often arrive with broken hands or broken legs. And many, he says, have been sodomised.

Harsh past

One boy shows me the scar he was left with after being trampled by a camel.

Burney with children
Ansar Burney with the rescued jockeys

Crudely stitched, it stretches from his chest down to his hips.

Many boys here remember children at the race tracks being injured. Others like Akbar, remember even worse.

"There was a child in the camp, and because he wanted to leave the camp and go to Dubai, one of the racetrack owners ran over the child in a truck and killed him," he tells me.

Few boys have any idea who their real parents are, or where they come from.

And that, says Ansar Burney, makes it difficult to trace their families - or to get them out of the clubs in the first place.

"The police ask me for the name of the child, the father's name, the name of the place and the name of the owner of the camp, so it's very difficult to find this information for each and every boy; these boys arrived at the racetrack when they were six months old.

"But I'm trying my best to save as many children as I can."

Others are trying their best to stop him.

There are powerful interests connected to the camel racing sport in the UAE. Ansar Burney says he's already received threats against his family.

The centre is housed in a military base.

While armed guards remain outside, the boys can enjoy cartoons and football. But they have few or no family connections or educational prospects beyond their new home.

So the question is - where will they go from here?

Child jockeys to return to Bangladesh
20 Aug 02 |  South Asia
The seamy side of camel racing
17 Apr 98 |  Despatches
Country profile: United Arab Emirates
04 Nov 04 |  Country profiles

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