Illicit trade in camel jockeys

Miranda Kennedy Jun 7, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Dubai is best known as a shopping and leisure capital of the United Arab Emirates. It’s called the Paris of the Arab world, but it’s a lot more like Vegas. There’s plenty of gambling going on — one popular form of that is camel racing.

It’s a sport that created an illicit trade in children. Thousands have been trafficked from neighboring countries to become jockeys. Miranda Kennedy met a few of the lucky ones who escaped to an orphanage in Lahore, Pakistan.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Johar Riaz’s torso is stunted from malnutrition so he runs slower than he should. He’s playing cricket in a small, stubbly field with a dozen other teenage boys outside a Pakistani government orphanage. He’s been living here since he was rescued from a camel farm in the Emirates a month ago.

Johar still remembers when labor agents came to his village. He was only 5 years old.

JOHAR RIAZ [translation]: I was the oldest son. One day my father said, ‘we do not have enough money to feed you, so you have to go and earn money for the family.’

Johar’s parents paid Pakistani agents to traffic their son to the gulf, because they expected him to make them money. There he joined some 5,000 boys from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan who work as camel jockeys

Racing camels is a national sport in the Emirates, and camel owners want young jockeys because they’re lighter. That’s why they underfeed them.

RIAZ [translation]: We were always hungry. They gave us rice and lentils but it was never enough.

Johar says his masters beat him sometimes and made him sleep outside in the desert. He heard of boys being trampled to death when they fell off the camels.

Basha Raza, a Pakistani government psychologist, says the effects of this treatment are severe.

BASHA RAZA: They are usually mute. They don’t have any idea about the place, any orientation about the time and the place.

Last year the UAE government made it illegal to use camel jockeys younger than 18 or weighing less than 100 pounds. They started working with the UN to repatriate the kids, get them medical attention and return them to their parents.

About 300 kids have been brought back to Pakistan so far, but once they get here, mnay of them can’t find their families again. Those kids, like Johar, are kept here in the government orphanage.

At lunchtime they line up to wash their hands. Silently they file onto narrow wooden benches. They’ve never had consistent meals before. It’s not gourmet, but it’s food.

Johar tells me he never got paid once in the 10 years he raced camels in the desert. He doesn’t know whether his smugglers ever sent his family any money for his labor, but he thinks most likely the agents kept it for themselves.

In Lahore, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.