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Child camel jockeys return home

By A. Sami Malik and Kun Li

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
Farhan, 5 (left), and Nawaz, 4 (right), are the youngest among the returned camel jockeys, and have no memory of the whereabouts of their families.
LAHORE, Pakistan, 28 June 2005 - Fifteen-year-old Ghulam Sarwar spent almost half of his young life racing camels far away from his home in Pakistan. His parents sent him to the United Arab Emirates seven years ago to work as a camel jockey. In exchange, the family received a recruitment fee, and Ghulam was paid a few dollars a month.

“Sometimes I had enough to eat, and sometimes not. They would hit us when we made mistakes,” said Ghulam during a recent interview with UNICEF. “The job is very tiresome. We have to work from morning to night, tenting the camels, training them, cleaning their waste, and racing in the games. I was lonely. I missed my parents. I didn’t like it there at all, but I had no way out.”

Ghulam said that there were more than 100 children – mainly from Sudan, Pakistan and Bangladesh – who worked alongside him as camel jockeys. “I have won seven races during the past 7 years. At the beginning, I was scared. As I grew older, I become better, and no longer felt fear when riding the camels,” said Ghulam.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
UNICEF Representative in Pakistan Omar Abdi (standing) talks to Asghar (left) and Sattar who are now living at a child protection institute in Lahore, Pakistan.
Camel racing is a popular sport in the United Arab Emirates, and using children as jockeys is equally common. But subjecting children to the danger posed by participating in the race, economically exploiting them and depriving them of an education are all in violation of the rights mandated by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Almost all countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have ratified the Convention.

As time passed, it seemed to Ghulam that he would never have a chance to go back home and return to school. But following an agreement between UNICEF and the United Arab Emirates, the government banned the use of children under 16, or weighing less than 45 kg, as camel jockeys. On 21 June, the first group of 22 children, including Ghulam, returned to their home country of Pakistan.

At the Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore City, Pakistan, government officials and UNICEF representatives were on hand to meet the returning children. As an interim measure, the children were then placed in a child protection institute where food, clothing, and medical care are provided.

Reclaiming a lost childhood

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
Twenty-two former child camel jockeys returned to their home country of Pakistan on 21 June 2005.

The resilience displayed by these children is impressive. “We have worked with all kinds of children in Pakistan, mostly street children and beggars. We have never seen children this clever, confident, and brave,” said Zubair Ahmad, Assistant Director of Pakistan’s Child Protection and Welfare Bureau. “However, there are signs of psychological trauma, and some of the children are definitely malnourished.”

The next step will be to reunite the children with their families. This could turn out to be a very long and difficult process. “Some of the children left home many years ago,” says Mr. Ahmad. “They have forgotten who their parents are and where they lived. It may take DNA testing in some cases.

“For those whose origins we can’t trace, we will provide education and vocational training, to help them be better prepared to return to society one day.”

The government of the United Arab Emirates has now agreed to send an estimated 3,000 child camel jockeys back to their home countries. UNICEF and its partners will be there to repatriate the children, helping them reintegrate into their societies, and reclaim their lost childhood.




27 June 2005:
UNICEF New York correspondent Kun Li talks with some of the children who once worked as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates.

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