Camel jockeys: Popular Arab sport costs Pakistani children their sanity

Published: May 8, 2013
Imran (second from the right), a victim of child trafficking, poses with his family in Rahim Yar Khan. PHOTO: ZAHID GISHKORI/EXPRESS TRIBUNE

Imran (second from the right), a victim of child trafficking, poses with his family in Rahim Yar Khan. PHOTO: ZAHID GISHKORI/EXPRESS TRIBUNE

RAHIM YAR KHAN: Nineteen-year-old Shakil struggles to cope up with grade VII coursework at a government school in Chak 72 Rahim Yar Khan. The school’s headmaster says the boy is mentally unfit. What he does not say is that Shakil, like many others in district, is suffering because of the abuse faced as a child camel jockey in the Gulf states.

Shakil’s case is not an isolated one. At least 200 of some 1,200 boys who were returned to Pakistan in deplorable conditions years ago are still suffering from the trauma.

The sport, the popularity of which rivals that of Formula One, was for years powered by the key ingredient of young boys as jockeys. Being young, they were light and would scream loudly spurring the camels. A steady supply of children from Pakistan satiated the hunger for such jockeys.

The practice continued unabated till the early 2000s when laws, and some technology, sought to put an end to this dark chapter. In 2002 Pakistan ratified the Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance (PACHTO) banning trafficking of children to the UAE and other Arab countries. The same year, the UAE also introduced laws against the use of children under the age of 15 as camel jockeys. However, this law was not actively enforced till 2005 when the Unicef and some robots helped end the trend of using boys as camel jockeys.

A lifetime of pain

Shakil’s travail is not the only one at the government elementary school. The school’s headmaster Azam Ahmed reveals Khalil, Shakil’s brother, too suffers the after effects of his horrible past.

Nazir, the boys’ father, tells The Express Tribune that a decade ago a human trafficking agent had lured him with promises of good employment and better education. Instead, the agent smuggled the boys into the UAE to serve as child camel jockeys.

Imran Shakoor in Rahim Yar Khan is much younger than Shakil. He goes to school like Shakil. And like Shakil, Imran struggles at school due to the brutal past he experienced.

“Imran is mentally retarded and can not learn any more in school,” his father Muhammad Shakoor repeats an assessment of the young boy’s teacher.

“My ‘Sheikh’ and my trainers used to continuously beat me—this is what I can recall,” Imran tells The Express Tribune.

A senior physician at Bahawal Victoria Hospital in neighbouring Bahawalpur, Dr Naeem, has a history of treating former child camel jockeys. He says that as many as 34 former jockeys had been admitted in the hospital between 2005 and 2007 for treatment. A majority of them, Dr Naeem notes, were mental patients.

Jockeys being sent despite ban

A decade after being banned, those working on the camel jockey supply chain end in Pakistan have yet to close up shop.

Rahim Yar Khan and the surrounding districts of Dera Ghazi Khan and Bahawalpur were for a long time a popular hunting ground for child traffickers who smuggled children into the Gulf country to serve as jockeys in camel races in return for money. Despite the laws banning the practice, the lustre has yet to wear off.

Imran’s father Muhammad Shakoor confirmed that some parents were still sending their children to the UAE and considered it a lucrative trade.

In village Chak No 72/NP in Rahim Yar Khan, Mohammad Ramzan lives with his nine brothers and three sisters. He tells The Express Tribune that recently one of this relatives, who doubles as an agent, had taken his son to Dubai via Iran.

“I sent my son to Dubai as I do not have enough money to feed my family,” he says.

There, Ramzan says, his son has been participating in camel racing and that he has become a good rider now.

There is always a buyer if there is a seller

Inspector Intelligence Bureau Bux Taheem who is deputed in Rahim Yar Khan reveals that as many as 12 human trafficking groups are active in the area and smuggle children from the remote areas of the district to Gulf states. Taheem, though, adds that there is parental consent in handing over children to the smugglers.

Parents too poor to feed their families are willing to sell. For those selling, like Shakoor and Ramzan, there is always a buyer.

Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood is a prominent agriculturist and politician from Rahim Yar Khan. The district is his constituency where he has served at almost all positions of district, provincial and federal governments in a career spanning 26 years. Unsurprising too that he comes from a family of distinguished politicians of the area. Cousin to both Pir Sibghatullah Shah Rashidi (Pir Pagara) and the former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, he currently serves as Punjab’s 34th governor. Despite his position and influence in the area, he too has been unsuccessful in putting an end to this menace.

“I’ve been addressing the plights of camel race victims on a priority basis. But I could not stop it as most parents willingly send their children [to become jockeys] for the sake of money.”

He pledges that all the victims will receive their due compensation but does not specify when or how.

Former Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Zaffarullah Khan, whose agency’s job includes catching human traffickers, says the practice is rife in Rahim Yar Khan, Bahawalpur and remote areas of Punjab.

Despite a ban on shifting children to other states under the law, Khan says hundreds of children are still being smuggled to Gulf countries to become camel jockeys.

The lasting solution, the former FIA chief says, is in addressing the root causes of human trafficking by instituting poverty mitigation measures and safety nets to promote economic development and social inclusion with a view to ameliorate the situation.

A legislation titled Prevention and Control of Human Trafficking Ordinance (PCHTO) was enacted in 2002 and rules for which were notified in 2005. The law specifically addresses the protection of victims of human trafficking. It binds responsibility on the Ministries of Interior, Law and Justice, Labour and the Overseas Pakistanis Division.

Former MNA Sardar Arshad Leghari, though, sees two sides of the picture. On one side, he laments that the plight of child camel jockeys “has earned a bad name for Pakistan.”

On the other side, he accuses Gulf States of exploiting children in camel races for their entertainment.

Compensation, not a black and white matter

With much of the child camel jockey culture being curbed in 2005, as many as 1,200 of the estimated 300 children trafficked to the Gulf States from Pakistan as child camel jockeys returned home.

In 2008, a camel jockey victims’ representative at the United Nation Global Forum to Fight against Human Trafficking Sabir Farhat challenged for compensation for the former jockeys in the Supreme Court. After two years, the court ruled in favour of awarding compensation worth around US $1.4 million to the children.

On directions of the court, Farhat said, cheques worth $1,000 per each child were sent by the UAE government. But many cases are still unresolved and many families are yet to receive their due compensation.

Former Child Protection and Welfare Bureau (CPWB) Rahim Yar Khan district officer Farhan Amir said that the UAE government had sent 750 cheques for the families. Most of the children on the list to receive compensation were employed in camel races from a very young age – some as young as six-years-old – but some never got their cheques.

“Plight of camel jockey still persists with over 200 families still waiting for compensation,” says Minister of Ministry of Interior Affairs Khwaja Siddiq-e-Akbar who adds that dozens of families could not be paid compensation due to problems with their documentary claims.

But Amir, who who used to represent camel jockeys, tells The Express Tribune that there were reports of a small portion of compensatory money being embezzled by the officials engaged in disbursing the cheques. The allegations were dismissed by officials.

Dr Faiza Asghar who supervised camel race victims between 2005 and 2008 as an advisor on child protection to the then Punjab chief minister says nobody knows whether the whole amount was distributed among victim families or not.

Some of the victims’ families have taken their battle to court. FIA legal director Azam told The Express Tribune that over 122 cases had been registered in various courts particularly in Punjab, some which are still waiting for for hearings. “Over 71 cases are pending hearing in the courts.”

Missing jockeys

The issue of compensations has further complications. Even though the FIA records show 3,000 children were trafficked to the Gulf States and only 1,200 returned home, there are as many as 300 children who are specifically listed as missing.

Chairman Burney Trust International and former minister for human rights Ansar Burney says that he has visited Gulf States to take up the issue of children who are still missing. “I will also take up the matter with Ministry of Interior now.”

The Express Tribune had written to the UAE mission in Pakistan for their version on this issue but it refused to comment.

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Reader Comments (17)

  • Raj - USA
    May 8, 2013 - 10:20AM

    What I have and read of these camel races is very terrifying. Boys as young as 5 years old were used as camel jockeys. These boys would not be fed properly also to keep their weight down. They would be tied to the camel with rope so that they stay on the back of the camel and the camels would be kicked off or made to run by some other way. The boys would not actually be riding the camels, just tied to the camel so that they do not fall off as the winner without a rider on its back is disqualified. The camels used to run out of scare. Though they were tied, many young boys would fall off and would be hanging from the camel. Just imagine how much terrified the lean young boy, 4 – 5 years old, hardly 3 – 4 feet tall would be feeling. Many boys would not even know that they are going to ride the camel. They would just be tied to the camel just prior to the race. It is the most cruel sport and was very popular in UAE. Arab sheikhs used to bet millions of dollars on this cruel sport. Yet they are stingy to pay a paltry amount of $1000 for the boy who has been crippled / disabled for life. Many young boys have died also by falling off from the camels.


  • Saeed M.A.
    May 8, 2013 - 10:51AM our Arab masters who would bet millions of USD $ on this Middle-Ages practice, are not ready to pay even $100 for the treatment of these poor kids. And people still believe that these Nomads are our actual ancestors and only friends. Sigh :(


  • Gulam Rasool "Kuldeep sharma"
    May 8, 2013 - 11:01AM

    SAD, Lets finish the Oil beneath their ground & they will have nothing again(as they were before oil era). They dont have enough time, not more than 25 years. Mark my words.
    I don’t know why Pakistan allow them to Hunt endangered Birds, Animals. Reach out from this slavery type of thing.
    Its the time that Arab needs Pakistan, not Pakistan needs so much of Arab.

    Gulam Rasool”kuldeep sharma”
    New Delhi


  • Mj
    May 8, 2013 - 11:05AM

    More cruelty inflicted on Pakistanis by our Arab ‘brothers’. Beneath a facade of wealth and feigned civility still lies a society heavily prejudicial and unwilling to let go of slavery.


  • Malick Hameed
    May 8, 2013 - 11:08AM

    It’s shameful for Arab princes. They must be punished in international courts. Justice should be done. Well-done Express Tribune. Great Job.


  • Nadir
    May 8, 2013 - 2:22PM

    Arab rulers are brehtern of Pakistan making worlds tallest building!


  • ss
    May 8, 2013 - 2:34PM

    we grew up listening to such horror stories, cannot even imagine what these innocent souls had been through, Arab sheikhs should be ashamed of themselves :-/


  • Dushmann
    May 8, 2013 - 3:15PM

    In a related development, an acclaimed Pakistani scholar and Silicon valley entrepreneur Mr Riaz Haq says:
    Pakistan is well ahead of India and Indonesia. UNESCO data also shows that Pakistan’s lead is growing with younger age groups. Pakistan has been increasing enrollment of students in schools at a faster rate than India. Pakistan’s human capital development has been driven over the years starting with the Green Revolution technologies in 1960s to nuclear development program in 1980s and information and telecom revolution in 2000s. More recently, there has been growing interest in biotechnology and robotics. Huge investments made in higher education during Musharraf years helped hundreds of thousands of students to benefit from the doubling of the number of universities. the growth of human capital is a good thing to build a foundation for Pakistan’s future. It’ll contribute to economic growth when the security situation improves and FDI returns to Pakistan. The country’s large diaspora too will be helpful in accelerating Pakistan’s growth and development with money and skills.


  • Yuri Kondratyuk
    May 8, 2013 - 11:26PM


    In a related development, an acclaimed
    Pakistani scholar and Silicon valley
    entrepreneur Mr Riaz Haq says

    Hello Mr.Riaz Haq, good to see that you are back to posting on ET.


  • Ahsan Saleem
    May 26, 2013 - 5:43PM

    Thank you ET for exposing such violation of human rights and spoliation of kids which is shamelessly being practised in my area–Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, Pakistan. Can champion of human rights like the US and UN take up this issue with Arabs by engaging Pakistan, a colony of Arab, to help out the poor to get rid of this social disease where children are the best source of luxurious life of Arabs. Shame on you Sheikhs.


  • May 26, 2013 - 5:44PM

    Thank you ICFJ for exposing such violation of human rights and spoliation of kids which is shamelessly being practised in my area–Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, Pakistan. Can champion of human rights like the US and UN take up this issue with Arabs by engaging Pakistan, a colony of Arab, to help out the poor to get rid of this social disease where children are the best source of luxurious life of Arabs. Shame on you Sheikhs.


  • GIndian
    May 29, 2013 - 8:43AM

    Why they do not use local Arab kids? There is no real reason to use Arabic type scripts to write local Pakistani languages, instead use Roman scripts or invent scripts on your own. A nuclear power like Pakistan need to pickup the art of self esteem from countries like Turkey and Iran.


  • May 31, 2013 - 4:28PM

    Indian lobby is also involved to celebrate this notorious sports by using South Asian states’ kids in it. Even some Indian agents also facilitated some Arab business men on border years back when they succeeded to smuggle 5 Pakistani kids from Rajanpur. I knew it because I live in this area. So, why the government is silent spectator.


  • Friend of the innocent
    Jun 10, 2013 - 12:33AM

    How does your bragging resolve the issue described in the above article? – No one would be proud of such an ill in their society but covering your dirty laundry with a thin sheet of self-patting won’t hide the stink it created nor get it clean any of the dirty spots.


  • Friend of the innocent
    Jun 10, 2013 - 12:42AM

    This is an absolute disgrace to humanity. UAE government and people ought to be ashamed of committing such a horrible atrocities against minors. Children, regardless of their race or origin, are every grownup’s responsibility to protect and defend from getting harmed.


  • Jun 10, 2013 - 11:07AM

    @Friend of the innocent:
    I endorsed you dear. I’m really surprise why Pakistan government is silent on this issue? Can someone tell me from Pakistan?


  • Riaz
    Jun 16, 2013 - 4:06PM

    Will Pakistan stand up and ask Arabs to do away with us and our land and leave us alone? Either it is entertainment or sectarian proxies Pakistanis is always the centre of focus. Will Pakistan dare to let the fly in the ointment removed once forever?


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