‘I was so scared … they beat us’

Former child jockey tells how he was made to race camels in the UAE.

shameem miah - former child jockey
Shameem Miah, centre, with his brothers who were also child camel jockeys in Dubai

Shameem Miah is one of 879 Bangladeshi children who will receive compensation from the United Arab Emirates for years of suffering as child camel jockeys. 

The Bangladeshi authorities have received $1.43m from the UAE which will be distributed among the families of former child jockeys.



UEA pays out to former child camel jockeys

This is an unprecedented move to compensate child jockeys from camel races – a centuries-old desert tradition and tourist attraction in the Gulf.

The payment follows pressure from human rights groups that eventually led the UAE to ban the use of child jockeys in 2005. Most had been trafficked from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sudan. 

Shameem was just three years old when he travelled to the Gulf state of Dubai. 

Lured by the promise of a better life, his family says they sold all of their land and belongings, even going into debt, in order to pay for the move.

His father says he paid $4,500 dollars to migrant traffickers who had promised him gainful employment in the UAE. The traffickers had arranged for the children to work as well.

On arrival in Dubai, Shameem and his two brothers – then aged five and six – were separated from their parents to take part in camel races.

A toddler, Shameem had only just learnt to walk when he was first sat upon a camel’s back.

“I used to be so scared of the camels, at the beginning I would fall off the camels all the time,” Shameem says. 

His brother Muna says that Shameem was so small that he had to be strapped on to the camel.

‘Deliberately starved’

Their terrified screams allegedly drove the camels to race even faster, much to the satisfaction of the camel owners.

Prized for their light weight, child jockeys tell of being deliberately starved, often going days without food, in order to keep them below 20 kilos.

“The camel owners would weigh us, if we ate too much, they would give us electrical shocks. I was so scared of them, I remember, if I would lose a race they would beat us,” Shameem says.

To this day, Shameem still bears the scars of five years of abuse by his employer, and countless falls. Many other child jockeys, however, have suffered much worse, sustaining life long injuries from being trampled under the charging camels.

Some are known to have died.

Shameem says he was often beaten by his employer when he lost a camel race

For five years Shameem and his brother lived and worked in a barbed wire encircled camp near the desert race track, where they often worked 18 hours a day for a payment of only four dollars a month.

Even this tiny wage was a help to his struggling family, many children were effectively sold into slavery and received nothing.

For Shameem’s father, 45-year-old Abul Kashem Miah, the situation was heartbreaking.

He is sorry he could not prevent the use of his sons as camel jockeys, saying: “All I could think of was paying off our debt and getting out of poverty so that we could leave to go back to Bangladesh.”

At the age of eight, Shameem was discarded by his employer, deemed too old and heavy to race camels.

Today camel jockeys have been replaced by robots, something Shameem has a difficult time imagining.

It is clear his experience of camel jockeying will remain with him forever, as he describes training with the camel every day, being fed just biscuits and water, only to sleep, exhausted alongside the other children, directly on the sand.

He says he rarely rode with a helmet and constantly burned his feet on the hot desert sand because he had not been given shoes.

Only 874 former child jockeys will receive compensation despite the fact many more are believed to have been trafficked.

Most of those still awaiting payment are now teenagers.

Missing children

According to the UK-based human rights group, Anti-Slavery International, around 2,000 unaccounted for child camel jockeys have not yet returned to their families from the Gulf states.
Christine Jaulmes, a spokeswoman for the charity Unicef, which has helped track down former child jockeys, including Shameem, says: “We cannot trace all of the children who have been involved in camel racing.

“Also, many children were killed during racing by falling from the camels and so on, so we don’t have a record of these children.”

Many children will never find their way home. They are unable to identify their families and home communities and often do not speak their native language because they were put to work at such a young age.

Abul Kashem Miah, Shameem’s father, says he paid traffickers $4,500 to get to Dubai

Shameem is actually among the lucky ones. Now thirteen, he could receive up to $10,000 in compensation, a fortune for most Bangladeshis, 40 per cent of whom live on less than two dollars a day.

For his family, who are still struggling, this money is an answer to their prayers – finally they can see a path out of poverty.

Tanjim Ahmad, the Bangladeshi state minister who is managing the fund at the home affairs ministry, says he hopes the UAE compensation initiative “will encourage other countries to take the necessary steps to prevent child labour and to invest in anti-trafficking operations”.

“We do appreciate the efforts [of] the UAE, once they identified the problem … we intend to use those funds to rehabilitate those children affected by this horrible episode,” he says.

For those children who are under 18 years of age, the government plans to put the money into trust funds that would pay the former jockeys interest until they come of age and can access the money.

In addition, funds will be made available from these accounts for families to pay school fees – an important part of rehabilitation and reintegration.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Shameen’s family still dream of a better life back in the UAE.

Abul, now a carpenter, continues his battle against poverty and, although their experience in the UAE was heart-wrenching, he knows he can earn more money if they moved there again.

Perhaps they will eventually use their new found wealth to try anew. If they ever do return, one thing is for certain, Shameem and his brothers intend to stay as far away as possible from the camel track.

Source: Al Jazeera

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