Every morning, Aziz, 12, cycles to school, his satchel balanced carefully over the handlebars. His life has changed dramatically over the past year and the former camel jockey, who spent five years in the Gulf until his return in 2005, is beginning to adapt to a different way of life.
"I will never forget the camels and being strapped onto those beasts. But I now hope I can put that behind me, get an education and go on to work in an office," Aziz said in his village near the southern Punjab town of Muzaffargarh.
Muzaffargarh district, with a population of around 3 million, is among the poorest districts of Pakistan’s populous Punjab province. Over the years, families from southern Punjab, as well as neighbouring Sindh province, have sold small boys, most aged between four and eight years, for use as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf countries, where the sport remains a popular pastime.
The children are used because they are light, which allows the camel to run faster. Their screams of terror spur on the animal. The children are deliberately underfed to keep down their weight, and many have suffered terrible injuries after falling off the camels.
The use of the child camel jockeys, usually bought from their parents or other relatives for around US $1,500, was banned in the UAE under a new law passed in May 2005, with violators facing jail terms of up to three years and/or a fine of almost $14,000.
Since then, under a Pakistan government initiative supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), at least 600 former child jockeys have returned home. Others have been repatriated to Bangladesh or Sudan, the two other home countries of the jockeys.
Most are now back with their families, with some of the parents claiming they had no idea that the children would be used as jockeys.
|A five-year-old boy rescued from an Abu Dhabi camel camp
"We thought they would be given jobs and would gain an opportunity to escape misery and poverty here," said Muhammad Khurram, an uncle of one of the boys sent to the UAE from Muzaffargarh.
All the families selling the children, in exchange for either a lump sum or monthly payment of the children's 'salaries' are extremely poor – often with six, seven or eight other children at home.
The return of a child from the Gulf, in some cases after five or more years away, is not easy to adjust to for either party.
The Lahore-based Child Welfare Protection Bureau (CWPB), run by the Punjab government, has been engaged from the start to receive and rehabilitate the returning children. It continues to keep a close watch on the situation of those who have returned.
According to data maintained by the CWPB, 227 children have returned to their homes in Rahimyar Khan, 131 to Muzaffargarh, 18 to Multan, 50 to Dera Ghazi Khan, and the rest to other areas in the southern Punjab or the neighbouring province of Sindh. Six of the children remain at the CWPB, which has facilities to house over 200 children. Efforts continue to trace their parents, but Dr. Faiza Asghar, who heads the centre, explained, "these children were very young when they were sent to the Gulf. They have no idea who their parents are, or where they formerly lived. We will keep them until they are at least 18, and of course provide for their education, if their families cannot be tracked down.”
Today, the six boys at the CWPB don smart uniforms for school and at the centre’s playground, smile broadly and confidently at the cameras – a change from the terrified expressions many child camel jockey victims wore when they first returned home in 2005.
In other cases, DNA testing has been used to reunite families. Parents taking back children have also frequently been warned of criminal action should they attempt to sell off their children again. Sixty people involved in human trafficking have, according to official figures, been arrested and are being tried under the relevant laws.
"We are continuing to monitor most of the children who have returned, including the 325 brought back by the CWPB who are now with their families," Asghar explained. Some children had considerable difficulty in adapting to the environment they had left behind before going to the Gulf, and were traumatised by their harsh experiences there, she added.
"Each case is different. Some of the children are still undergoing psychological treatment and facing problems, while others are not," the doctor said.
In some cases, the relatives of former jockeys interviewed by IRIN stated that the children seemed "distant and resentful" and were unwilling to attend school or perform household chores. In fact, some of these children aged six or seven years when they left, returned as angry, embittered teenagers – with siblings or parents in some cases not pleased to have them back in cramped family homes, where food and resources were already scarce.
A Community Action Plan (CAP) to create awareness about the trafficking of children, and to aid the rehabilitation of former camel jockeys, is being carried out by UNICEF, in cooperation with the CWPB and its sub-office in Rahimyar Khan.
The programme includes the education of children, and focuses on providing healthcare facilities, micro-financing, safe water, and social uplift schemes within communities.
On 18 December 2006, UNICEF welcomed the allocation of US $9 million by the UAE government to assist former camel jockeys who have returned home to their communities.
The UAE also agreed to extend until May 2009 its partnership with UNICEF to assist in the repatriation and rehabilitation of child camel jockeys.
Almost all the children now resettled in the Punjab are back at school. Six hundred bicycles have been provided to returning children by the CWPB to enable them to reach schools, help them resume something resembling normal life, and gain an education that could in the future help them to lead normal lives.
|Camel racing remains a popular pastime in the UAE
However, officials at the CWPB warned that some of the children – estimated at around 20 percent of those who have returned – continue to face difficulties adjusting to life in their homes and at school, and therefore are not able to attend classes every day.
A few of the older children are also being given vocational training, and organisations in Pakistan are continuing efforts to secure employment for the former jockeys in the UAE.
But despite these efforts, the challenges are far from over. Two weeks ago, Pakistan's Minister of State for Information, Tariq Azeem, stated that there had been a recent attempt to take three children back to the Gulf for camel races, and that these children had been brought back with the cooperation of the UAE authorities.
He promised that the Pakistani government would "continue to pursue" this humanitarian matter at all costs.
Meanwhile, the Karachi-based Ansar Burney Trust, which has also been closely involved with the effort to repatriate and rehabilitate the child camel jockeys, is also continuing efforts to locate those that still remain in the Gulf.
"An intensive search and identification of underage jockeys is continuing," Ansar Burney, the group’s chairman, said recently.
But while the efforts of governments and welfare organisations have helped highlight the issue, bring about necessary changes in law to end the use of children as jockeys and undertake rehabilitation efforts, the socio-economic issues which underpin such abuse of children remain in place.
"Families are so poor, they barely survive. In despair they take desperate measures, including the sale of children. Until this issue of deprivation is addressed, there can be no guarantee more children will not be trafficked to the Gulf or elsewhere, either as jockeys or for other kinds of slave labour," said Abbas Akhtar, a Multan-based social activist who has closely followed the issue of the child camel jockeys, and the difficult task of giving the returning children the childhood they missed out on while on the camel racing tracks of the Middle East.
For further IRIN reports on the plight of the camel jockey children, see also:
UAE: Camel racing continues to be child free
and the video: Camel Jockeys