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MIDEAST: Rehabilitation for Retired Child Camel Jockeys Gets Top Priority

Peyman Pejman

DUBAI, May 25 2005 (IPS) - Just as some governments in the Middle East are trying to stamp out the age-old practice of using child camel jockeys, they are also taking steps to deal with the physical and psychological abuses suffered by the children.

There are also steps to develop robot jockeys and put them in use by the summer camel race season in 2006, although the robots are still in the development phase.

The issue of child camel jockeys has gained increased attention lately because many – if not most – of the jockeys are believed to be under-aged children from poor nations who are either kidnapped by smugglers or sold to them by poverty-stricken families.

International human rights groups and activists have condemned the practice as slavery and some governments, including those in the Middle East, have become more conscious of the practice.

Camel racing is most popular in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with the UAE counting for most of the races and child jockeys. Although there are no accurate figures for child jockeys in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, UAE officials estimate there are about 2,800 under-aged jockeys in their country.

The initial efforts to deal with the abuses the children have suffered recently started in the UAE, according to Omar Shehadeh, regional donor relations officer with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

”I think the Emirates decided to clean out the practice because they know it will have implications for the country. The UAE is known to be an advanced country and they found out that leaving it will affect their relations with others,” Shehadeh told IPS.

”UNICEF has taken the leading role in the child jockey issue to ensure that the children are not just returned to their home countries but receive the treatment needed and a viable process of reintegration into their societies is provided for,” he added.

The overwhelming majority of the child jockeys in the Arab world are from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sudan, Eritrea and Mauritania, officials here say.

Shehadeh said while some of the children have been smuggled into the Middle East on forged travel documents, in most cases they are stolen or bought from their families but brought in on legal passports, making it harder for Arab authorities to identify them on arrival.

To close that gap, UAE officials have taken two steps, according to a UAE official who asked his name not be used.

He said the government has mandated that all under-aged children from those six countries have their own passports and not be included on the passport of the person accompanying them. The second step is to perform DNA tests to establish biological ties between the child and the accompanying person.

”The way it is now, the adult claims the child is his or her son or brother or uncle and we have no way of proving or disproving so we don’t know which child is stolen or smuggled,” the source said.

Shehadeh pointed to a recent agreement with UAE officials that also established two clinics in the cities of Al Ain and Abu Dhabi to offer the children ”psychological and physical” treatment ”until they are ready” to be repatriated to their home countries. The clinics are established through a 10 million-dirham (2.7 million-U.S. dollar) donation by the UAE government.

The centers have so far received 68 children, some as young as six years old, Shehadeh said, adding that the number is likely to mushroom after the government’s May 31 deadline expires.

The government has established the deadline to give ”leeway time” to child jockey holders to return the children before they face fine and jail time penalties, he added.

While there are no reports of what measures Kuwait is adopting to stop the use of child camel jockeys, Saudi Arabia now says jockeys must weigh as least 65 kilograms.

Higher weight ceiling ensures using older children and thus removing the need to use younger child jockeys. UAE has adopted the policy of banning jockeys under 16 years of age and weighing less than 45 kilograms.

Meanwhile, Qatar is taking a totally different approach: It is paying a Swiss company millions of U.S. dollars to develop robot jockeys.

”We received a request from the government of Qatar late in 2003 or early 2004 to develop robot jockeys. We have been working with them and the prototype is now ready,” Alexander Colot, projects and service manager at K-Team, a Swiss robotics research company, told IPS in a telephone interview from Switzerland.

Colot revealed the Qatari government has paid them ”a bit less than 5 million U.S. dollars” for the research and development.

”We have worked on a lot of robotic projects but this one had its own challenges because of issues like dealing with dust and humidity and dealing with camels,” added Colot.

He said now that the prototype is ready, K-Team, according to its agreement with the Qatari government, plans to open an assembly plant in Qatar where K-team-trained Qataris will mass-produce the robots.

According to Colot, the Qatari government plans to initially assemble 2,000 of such robots.

”From that point, the government of Qatar will own the product and also plans to sell it to other countries, such as the UAE,” said Colot. He said each robot will cost about 8,000 U.S. dollars.

Shehadeh, the UNICEF representative in the UAE, said while efforts in this country are a good starting point in rooting out a practice that many consider akin to slavery, there must be a region-wide effort to deal with the child jockey phenomenon.

”We certainly hope that other countries will follow the example of the UAE and not just pass laws, but engage in a comprehensive plan to help the kids all the way,” he said, while admitting that UNICEF has not started similar talks with other countries with child camel jockeys.

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