Falak Sher took his young son and his nephew from their rural village in Pakistan’s Punjab region to race as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1998. He was in search of a fortune, but found a nightmare.
Once there, his children were starved to keep their weights at the minimum for racing. They were given electric shocks as punishments for minor mistakes. “We were not allowed to leave the premises. It seemed we had landed in a prison,”he said. Camel racing is a hugely popular sport inmany Gulf States. As children weigh less, the camels go faster. Although the UAE repatriated 3000 child jockeys in 2005 to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan, the use of children as jockeys in the Gulf States is still reported.
Reintegrating the children has been a challenge. Despite a government scheme to get them back into school, many were reluctant. Parents and children had to be counselled on the benefits of education.
“This gap was filled by Caritas Pakistan. Its programme for advocacy and networking against human trafficking carried out a comprehensive research study on camel jockeys,” said Amir Irfan, National Coordinator of the Livelihood Programme, Caritas Pakistan.
The survey began in 2009 with the help of supporters like the Child Protection Bureau. Caritas Pakistan prepared questionnaires for children, parents and agents. It has been part of the process of the community coming to terms with issues.
Caritas Pakistan is now working with the communities in Punjab to send their children to schools or to skills training centres for those over 18 years old. Caritas also organised a day of prayer for the victims of human trafficking in August.
Basti Khurasan is a village where Caritas works with former child jockeys. Under amakeshift bamboo roof by the villagemosque, some 30 children keenly listen to their teacher. They could now be children studying their lessons anywhere in the world.