PAKISTAN: Focus on rehabilitation of child camel jockeys
Lahore, 23 June 2005 (IRIN) - Life took a dramatic turn for the better for 21 children on Tuesday when they were sent home to the Pakistani city of Lahore from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There were no relatives or friends at the airport to greet the boys, perhaps out of fear of being implicated in their trafficking. They had previously been used to sheltering under makeshift tents or in comfortless rooms close to sheds where racing camels were kept.
Their days as child camel 'jockeys' were over and they had spent the last two days filling in colouring books, completing simple puzzles and looking at picture books in a hostel of the Child Welfare Protection Bureau (CWPB). Sadly, almost all the children, aged between three and 12 years old, were illiterate and could not read the stories that accompanied the pictures.
All of the boys had worked as camel jockeys in the Gulf with many of them being sold to agents who smuggled them out to Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the UAE, or other Gulf states by middle men. Others seem to have been runaway children who had been kidnapped and whisked away.ESTABLISHING IDENTITY
"I barely remember my parents. I think my mother has long, black hair though," said five-year-old Hasnain, who was just three when he was taken to the Gulf by a couple who pretended to be his parents.
"Many of these children suffer physical conditions that need treatment, such as infections and fractured bones but they also need emotional and psychological help," said Dr Faiza Asghar, a leading pediatrician in charge of the CWPB, set up by the Punjab government in 2003. "Top experts have been called in to help treat the children," explained Asghar.
Under its current framework, the plan is to rehabilitate the children, locate their parents where possible and to establish their identity through DNA tests to avoid the children once more falling into the wrong hands. Until then, the children will stay at the CWPB, which can house up to 250 residents at a time.
The children now enjoy relative safety and were greeted by the Punjab chief minister in person on their return. But they have left thousands of others like them behind in the Gulf. NEW BAN IN THE GULF ON CHILD JOCKEYS
One hundred and seventy Pakistani children handed over by camel-owners after the UAE imposed a new ban on camel riding by children on 31 May, now reside at a rehabilitation camp set up by the Prince of Abu Dhabi. It is run by the Karachi-based rights activist, Ansar Burney, who for years has been spearheading efforts to bring the camel children home from the Gulf.
Burney and the Punjab government, estimate that apart from the 170 at the centre, who will be brought home in batches, another 2,000 Pakistani children being used as camel jockeys remain in the Gulf. Some have horrifying tales to tell.
Shehzad, now back in Rahim Yar Khan in the southern Punjab with his parents, served as a camel jockey in Abu Dhabi from 1998 to 2000 and returned home after his father heard about his fate from a relative and insisted he be brought home. He had been taken to the Gulf by a maternal uncle, who promised his parents he would be "put to work at a restaurant."
Instead, he was sold to work as a camel jockey with his uncle collecting around US $1,700 in payment.
"I was seven at the time. I was put on the camel and kicked viciously when I tried to resist as I was terror-stricken," Shahzad explained at his Rahimyar Khan home. He and five other child jockeys, two from Bangladesh and two from the Multan area in Pakistan who were kept with him, were often given only one meal a day. Lighter riders enable camels to run faster. They were beaten if they protested, forced to ride the animals and one boy, according to Shehzad "suffered several broken ribs after being kicked by one of the most brutal Arab camel minders."
But Shehzad is one of the luckier ones. Many children remain in the Gulf for years, virtually forgotten by families. Others end up with severe fractures or other injuries. Deaths have been reported at camel races in the past.REHABILITATION EFFORTS
Omar Abidi, the representative of the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Pakistan, was among those present to meet the latest batch of 21 children on their arrival in Lahore.
Silvia Pasti, a UNICEF child protection officer, explained the plan is for the children to arrive in batches, enabling the CWPB to accommodate them.
"We will have to work efficiently. The paperwork and identification of the children will need to be completed before the next batch arrives, so they can be sent to their homes," Pasti said.
Country representative Abidi has also remained closely involved with the plan to rehabilitate the camel kids, including the process of placing them in schools, taking care of health needs and helping them adjust to homes from which many have been absent for many years.
"My parents are old. They have seven other children. They cannot care for me," Hamid said, soon after arriving in Lahore.
Dr Faiza Asghar, however, concedes that the task is a "challenging one," noting that the 250 places currently existing at the centre are insufficient. The CWPB was set up to provide destitute and runaway children a safe place to stay.
"The Punjab chief minister has already agreed to set up another hostel in Lahore and also one in Rahim Yar Khan," Dr Asghar explained. Many of the children sent to the Gulf come from the poverty-stricken southern Punjab and having rehabilitation facilities in place there is seen as particularly urgent.
"Yes, it is a terrible situation. I would never sell my children but one cannot entirely blame the parents. They are often desperate and have literally nothing to eat. In most cases, they are not even informed of what will happen to their kids but merely told they will be taught a trade and will build a future in the Gulf," Shamshad Muhammad, a donkey-cart driver in Rahim Yar Khan said.CHILDREN REMAIN VULNERABLE TO TRAFFICKERS
But while several hundred children have been rescued, others still remain vulnerable to trafficking, for use either as camel jockeys or other work, either in the country or abroad. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has been advised not to relax its guard at airports, especially for small boys who may be travelling with adults other than their parents.
"In the past year, dozens were stopped at airports or ports before they left the country. These efforts will go on," an FIA spokesman said.
UNICEF also hopes to establish a system, that Pasti says, "can point out children at risk of being sold." It is hoped members of communities in Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Bahawlnagar and other areas of 'high incidence' where trafficking is common can be involved in this.
"There is a need to create awareness among parents and also to ensure the children are kept safe on their return home. But it is worth remembering that the root causes too have to be addressed, especially the growing socio-economic misery of people. Otherwise exploitation of children in various forms will continue," Nida Ali, a programme coordinator at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said.
The returns continue and more children are expected back from the Gulf within weeks. The task of rehabilitating them continues. The perhaps greater challenge of resolving issues that compel parents to sell them in order to enable other offspring to survive, remains one that is yet to be met, especially as poverty levels continue to rise across the South Asian nation.