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Camel jockeys coming home

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2005/Shehab
Abdullah (right), eight, and Ahmed (left), five, are brothers. They have been repatriated to Bangladesh after working as camel jockeys for years in the United Arab Emirates.

By Zafrin Chowdhury and Kun Li

DHAKA, 16 August 2005 - A bus full of children is on its way to a shelter here in the Bangladeshi capital. The children, some as young as four years old, look tired and are unusually subdued. After spending years working as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates, they are home at last following an agreement between UNICEF and the UAE Government. 

At the shelter - run by the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA) - the children are given food, clothing, and medical exams. Among them is eight-year-old Abdullah. Abdullah is quiet most of the time. When he speaks, he speaks a mix of Bengali and Arabic, and often loses his train of thought while switching from one language to the other.

He says he was hurt quite a few times - falling off the charging camels. His mother and five-year-old brother Ahmed were brought here along with 36 other former camel jockeys and their families.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2005/Shehab
Lokeman also worked as a camel jockey. He doesn’t know his age.

Abdullah’s mother explains: “We left [Bangladesh] nearly nine years ago. Both Abdullah and Ahmed were born in the UAE and worked on camels’ backs. The money they earned was our main income. My husband is still in Abu Dhabi with two of our older children.”

“I almost could not recognize this city [Dhaka]; and my sons do not know this place at all. They are confused. I have no idea how we will start a life here all over again,” says another worrying mother.

In May the Government of the UAE banned the exploitation of children under sixteen as camel jockeys. With UNICEF’s support, the Government of Bangladesh began the process of verifying which children were Bangladeshi, and made arrangements for their repatriation.

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2005/Shehab
Rubel, twelve, bears a scar on his forehead, a result of one of his many falls while working as a camel jockey.

Some of the children had been trafficked from Bangladesh. Others were sent to the UAE to earn money for their families. They worked almost every day under a blazing sun, and had no access to education. To keep their weight down, they were often starved before races.

Rubel, twelve, has a distinct stitch mark on his forehead. Reluctant to talk at first, he gradually opened up. He said that he left Bangladesh when he was four, and worked for several years as a camel jockey. He only recently ‘retired’ from being a jockey, and was given the task of caring for the camels. The scar on his forehead is the result from his one of many falls while racing camels.

“The priority for these children now is that they be rehabilitated and reintegrated into their families, their local communities and Bangladesh society. Their safety and well-being is our main focus now,” says UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh Morten Giersing.

“We have helped the Government of Bangladesh establish a tracing system in order to help reunite the children with their parents,” adds Mr. Giersing.

There are still more than 150 child jockeys who remain in the UAE. UNICEF is working with the governments of Bangladesh and the UAE to repatriate them as soon as possible.




17 August 2005:
UNICEF Correspondent Kun Li reports on the return of 36 Bangladeshi children, who worked abroad for years as child camel jockeys.

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