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Former camel jockeys reclaiming their lost childhood

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Asad Zaidi
After returning to Pakistan, these former camel jockeys play at a child protection centre in Lahore while waiting to be reunited with their families.

By Kun Li

NEW YORK, USA, 6 January 2006 – After passing through the final security check point at the international airport in Dubai, a group of Pakistani boys are going back home at long last. Like thousands of other children from poor countries they were sent by their parents – and sometimes even trafficked – to the United Arab Emirates to work as camel jockeys. Enduring harsh living conditions and long working hours were once their daily routines.

Riaz hasn’t seen his parents for seven years – he doesn’t even remember how old he is. “We did camel racing and looked after the camels, cleaned them, and fed them. Sometimes we fell off and got injured,” said Riaz.

“These children work like adults – they lose their childhood. And they have no access to health services and education,” commented UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Rima Salah.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Asad Zaidi
Nadia Bashir, a psychologist, plays with the children to help them cope with psychological stress.

A courageous commitment

In a breakthrough agreement the United Arab Emirates, in consultation with UNICEF, banned the use of underage camel jockeys. Since November 2004 the government has been sending the boys back to their home countries.

Before they travel home the children receive counselling, nutritious meals and new clothes. In accordance with the agreement more than 1,000 camel jockeys – mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan – have been sent home so far. And the UAE agrees to support the children financially for two years to help them reintegrate into their families and societies.

Once the boys arrive in Pakistan they are received at a child protection centre in Lahore. There, they are given psychosocial support, medical check ups, and a chance to once again play like normal children. Reuniting these children with their families has proven to be a more difficult task.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Asad Zaidi
A group of former camel jockeys watch television at a child protection centre in Lahore.

“The main problem is that these children have been away from their families for several years, some of them more than 7 or 8 years. Most of them have very little recollection of who their actual family was or who their parents are,” explained Dr. Faiza Asghar, head of a child protection centre. In some cases DNA testing is required in order to verify the children’s parents.

“The success of this programme shows the commitment from the government, like the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, among others. For UNICEF, we also gained invaluable experience working in countries where they don’t need our financial support, but [instead] our guidance in realizing the rights of the children,” remarked Ms. Salah.




6 January 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on success in repatriating child camel jockeys from the United Arab Emirates to their home countries.

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