The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely regarded as one of the most pro-Western countries in the Gulf region. It’s become popular as a venue for an increasing variety of international sporting events. Yet few realize that for nearly 25 years it has also been a centre for the illegal trade in thousands of very young boys, some no more than five years old. They lead brutal, terrified lives employed as child jockeys in the traditional sport of camel-racing. Traffickers bring the boys from areas of desperate poverty in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and India to become disposable riders for an élite sport of sheikhs. Children are preferred as jockeys because they are light in weight, cheap to feed and house and cannot protest their conditions. Camel racing is big business (a top racing camel may be worth as much as $1 million). The sport is also extremely dangerous, with many of these tiny children killed and injured every year.
There are reliable reports of widespread physical and sexual abuse of the children, beatings and systematic food deprivation to reduce weight and growth. The abuse is so widespread in the Gulf region, involving as many as 40,000 children, that it may currently be one of the world’s worst instances of organized child abuse – child cruelty on an industrial scale.
Pressure from Western and Asian NGOs has finally resulted this year in restrictions on the use of child camel jockeys in the UAE. Regulations exist which stipulate camel jockeys must not be younger than 15 years of age or weigh less than 45 kg. In a filmed investigation by the author over a four-month period we discovered that in practice no child is used for racing who weighs more than 25 kg, equivalent to the usual weight of a six-to-nine-year-old. An alarming number of children we encountered on the racetracks were as young as five years old. Instead of enforcing existing legislation, the UAE authorities have banned photography at the racetracks to prevent the continued practice and scale of this child abuse being documented.
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