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Thousands of Boys Trapped as Camel Jockeys in Middle East

International Camel race at Al-Arish, Egypt
Each year hundreds, perhaps thousands of boys are trafficked from Pakistan and other impoverished, mostly Muslim countries to the Middle East where they are forced to work as camel jockeys. Human rights activists say the boys are treated like virtual slaves: beaten, starved, often crippled and then discarded.

The best camel jockeys are usually small and lightweight. So when race organizers visit Pakistan looking for riders they target the youngest children they see.

Child advocates here say boys as young as two and a half have been taken to oil-rich Gulf States in the Middle East.

Today, an estimated 40,000 child jockeys are riding in races in countries such as Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Most of the boys come from poor, mostly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Ansar Burney runs a human rights organization in Pakistan working with former child jockeys.

He says in some cases kidnappers grab the boys off the street, then smuggle them out of the country.

Other times, well-dressed men approach poor families offering them charity.

"And he will say I am a rich man and I want to sponsor some of the children," said Ansar Burney. "I want to give them education and good future."

But in this case, Mr. Burney says a good education means learning how to race camels.

The children sleep in metal huts and rise at dawn to start their training. The young jockeys are strapped into their saddles to keep them from slipping off the charging animals, which weigh over 400 kilograms, more than 10 times as much as their tiny passengers.

Mr. Burney says that as the camels approach speeds of up to 40 kilometers an hour, accidents are common.

"Sometimes they fall off the camels and the camels run over their bodies," he said. "You will see every second or third boy with a broken arm or broken leg."

The children also endure more lasting injuries. The constant friction and bouncing of the saddles cause kidney damage and, in some cases, impotence.

To keep the riders' weight down, the boys are underfed before major races. And, according to the United Nations, children considered too heavy to race are often abandoned to join the region's growing underclass of undocumented workers.

Katherine Turner, who works in London with the advocacy group Anti-Slavery International, says the boys who do make it out describe the racing camps as virtual prisons.

"They talk about being beaten if they don't win the races," she said. "They talk about not having enough to eat, not having time off."

Many boys are never paid, or are paid far less than their parents were promised.

For years, international aid organizations have pressured Middle Eastern governments to end the use of children in camel races.

Most Gulf States do have laws banning the practice. Generally, children under the age of 15 are barred from riding.

But Ms. Turner says the rules are usually ignored at private racetracks in the region.

"This is a sport that many influential and powerful people take pleasure in and so there clearly isn't a real will to do something about it in terms of prosecuting offenders under existing regulations," she said.

But things may be changing. The United Arab Emirates has just signed an agreement with the United Nations pledging action against child traffickers.

UNICEF, the U.N.'s children fund, says there are around 4,000 child jockeys in the Emirates.

Under the new pact, the UAE promises to reinforce an existing ban against using children in camel races.

UNICEF's Gulf States regional representative, June Kunigi, says the government has compiled lists of all the camel clubs and farms in the Emirates.

For the first time, she says, the government appears committed to protecting underage jockeys.

"And they are planning to crackdown and go after the farmers and actually search for the children," she said.

She says the UAE has also agreed with UNICEF to establish two rehabilitation centers for former child jockeys. Doctors and social workers will help the children recover until they can be repatriated and reunited with their families.

Assistance will continue even after the boys go home, with extra funds promised for education and social services.

The government also announced plans to replace the children with lightweight robot jockeys.

Prototypes have been successfully tested and officials say they hope the first batch will hit the tracks later this year.

In Pakistan, Ansar Burney says the agreement is a significant step forward. However, he and other advocates have heard such pledges before and say they still have seen little real progress.