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Child camel jockey ban flouted in United Arab Emirates

Children as young as 10 are working as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates despite a law banning underage riders, photographs taken by an anti-slavery lobby group show. The children raced at speeds of up to 30mph, as they competed in a festival in Abu Dhabi last month, pressure group, Anti-Slavery International claims.

Witnesses at the Sweihan racetrack saw one child fall off a camel and narrowly escape being trampled on.  And the organisation’s pictures from an event attended by dignitaries and uniformed police officers show children with badly fitting hats falling over their eyes. The sport prefers to use young children as jockeys because they are light while owners are said to believe the child’s screams make the camel run faster. Anti-Slavery International said the children at the festival said they were from Abu Dhabi.

In 2005, after pressure from campaigners, the Middle Eastern nation banned under-18s from the sport. Children had been killed or hurt, suffered head and spinal injuries and damaged genitals, The Independent newspaper reported. The rule means that people using children as jockeys can be fined and jailed for up to three years in prison. Officials that spoke to Anti-Slavery said that no laws had been broken and the jockeys were Emiratis racing with their parents' consent. They denied children were trafficked and said "soft" sand and the reduction of the race from 12 kilometers to three had made racing safer.

Since the ban, fewer child jockeys appear to have been racing and the underage jockeys were older, said Catherine Turner, a child labour expert at Anti-Slavery International. "We are concerned that the fact the race was attended by the police and UAE dignitaries means that child protection is not being taken seriously," she said. "Soft sand will not prevent a 10-year-old child racing at up to 50 kilometers an hour from seriously hurting themselves or worse if they fall," she added. Before the ban, there were up to 3,000 child jockeys in the UAE, many of them trafficked from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan and Mauritania. Some were paid compensation by the United Arab Emirates for the abuse and injuries they suffered. Officials travelled to Bangladesh where they made payments to 879 former child camel jockeys, many of whom are now adults but still suffer from injuries they got when they were forced to race.

For years thousands of poor families from Pakistan and Bangladesh, sold their children, some as young as three, to human traffickers, who passed them on to camel racers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where the sport is very popular.

By Hayley Jarvis for SOS Children