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Deadly ride

Photo by JL Winter/Anti-Slavery International.

Anti-Slavery International has uncovered children as young as ten years old forced to take part in dangerous camel races in the United Arab Emirates. We were able to take photos to prove that children were involved in a total of twelve races at the Sweihan race track in Abu Dhabi on February 9, 2010.

Using children in camel racing is a practice Anti-Slavery has campaigned against for many years because of the danger to the children involved. In 2005, following pressure from Anti-Slavery and the international community, the UAE government finally banned the use of under-eighteens in camel racing and replaced children with remote-controlled robots.

For at least thirty years prior to the ban, thousands of children as young as four years old were trafficked from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania to race camels. The UAE itself estimated that around 3,000 child camel jockeys were in the country, in 2005.

The new law supposedly made it illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen to take part in camel racing in the UAE. It also made the recruitment or use of children in camel racing punishable by three years in prison or a minimum fine of 50,000 dirham, or both. Despite this, Anti-Slavery is not aware of any prosecutions under this law.

There was an amnesty from prosecution for all camel owners who handed over children for repatriation by May 31, 2005. However, we received reliable reports of children training and racing camels in 2006, and while police were present at the Sweihan races this year, they did nothing to stop the children from racing.

UAE officials have argued that the children in the Sweihan races were Emirati and so exempt from the law. However, we are unaware of any legal loop-hole that makes it acceptable for Emirati children to risk their lives racing camels. Also, doubts over these children’s origin exist as many were South Asian in appearance, and spoke South Asian languages. Some of them even said that they had been racing for over five years, and no Emirati children were ever identified as camel jockeys before the ban.

These doubts are important because while the UAE undertook a repatriation process with Unicef, by their own estimates nearly 2,000 trafficked children did not return to their home country. To date, the UAE has never explained what happened to the remaining children. Also, a four-year-old child, trafficked to the UAE before the 2005 ban, would have spent their entire childhood far away from their original home, making it only natural for them now to describe themselves as Emirati.

However, the nationality of the children is irrelevant under the law. We question any exemptions for Emirati children from protection under the UAE ban. And, using under-eighteens from any country to race camels contravenes international standards for hazardous work. The International Labour Organization has specifically highlighted the dangers of camel racing for children.

While the UAE embassy in London may describe the race as equivalent to a British country show the reality is very different. Racing camels can weigh up to 450 KG and reach speeds of up to 50 KM/H.

Riders regularly suffer injuries and even death from falls, or by being trampled by camels. Research into injuries sustained by child camel jockeys has revealed that nearly a quarter of all child camel jockeys injured from racing or training had head injuries with a high number of skull fractures and brain injuries.

One of our own photos shows a child who fell from his camel and narrowly avoided being trampled. Several camels made it to the finishing line without their child riders, though the fallen children were quickly removed from the racecourse by ambulances. Indeed, ambulance staff present at the races on the day expressed concern at the risk the children faced and confirmed that several children had been hurt, though no information was provided on the severity of their injuries.

Major General Nasser Al Menhali, who, as well as being the immigration minister, is in charge of the repatriation of child camel jockeys, defended the inclusion of children in the race. He said it was permitted because the children were over ten years old and raced with their parents’ consent. Officials also suggested that the use of soft sand and reducing the distance of the race from 12 KM to 3 KM had made it safer.

But, these arguments obviously do not hold up. Soft sand will not prevent ten-year-old children racing up to 50 KM/H, from seriously hurting themselves, or worse, if they fall. Children are often very frightened and forced under duress to take part, some are so scared they attempt to jump off mid-race.

The Emirates Heritage Club, that organised the races, said that they had not replaced human jockeys with remote-controlled robots “so that young Emiratis can get a taste of how their grandfathers felt.”

However, while camel racing in the Arabian Gulf is hundreds of years old, the use of child jockeys is a relatively recent development. It can be traced back to the 1970s, following the building of a palace by Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi in the Rahimyar Khan region of Pakistan.

The sheikh regularly used local children in camel races, put on for his guests, and the competitive advantage of light weight children was clear. It was during this time that children began to be sent to race in the UAE.

As the UAE became a wealthy oil-rich state, the traditional role of camels became obsolete. Camel racing enabled the country’s leaders to show that they were not abandoning the country’s culture.

Despite defending the right of children to risk their lives in February’s race, the UAE embassy in London said the UAE considers the use of under-age children for commercial camel racing to be exploitative and is committed to enforcing its ban.

If the UAE really is committed to tackling this dangerous practice, then it must live up to its international obligations and enforce its own laws to stop children of any nationality endangering their lives by racing camels.


Catherine Turner is Coordinator, Child Labour Programme, Anti-Slavery International.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 4/April 2010.

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