Re-visiting the camel boy racket of 1989 | Sunday Observer

Re-visiting the camel boy racket of 1989

8 May, 2022

The cover page on the-in-flight magazine on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) bound scheduled flight from Colombo contained a colourful and interesting picture that promoted camel races for the summer season.

A close scrutiny of the picture revealed that the jockeys riding the camels were little terrified children with Sri Lankan features or perhaps from another country in the South Asian region.

As investigators from the police and elsewhere were later to find out there existed a sordid human trafficking racket in Sri Lanka where boys under the age of 12 were sent to the UAE as child jockeys for camel races in the harsh desert environment.

The chief suspect behind the racket was identified as an Indian astrologer. He was subsequently arrested along with his spouse and the police uncovered hard evidence such as doctored travel documents and birth certificates.

Earlier officials of the Department of Child Care and Probation complained that the police had opted to maintain a lukewarm attitude in investigations for reasons, perhaps known only to them.

Not only that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services Donald Abeysinghe was quoted by the now defunct Sun newspaper that initially exposed the racket as saying that he had no comment.

Corrupt officials

The recruiting of the boy jockeys was carried out through a tight syndicate that involved a mixed bag of licensed foreign employment agencies along with their counterparts in the UAE, middlemen who worked for a fee and corrupt Government officials.

The modus-operandi of the syndicate was simple.

Their agents would visit poverty stricken homes in far flung poor villages in the country and persuade elders to part with the siblings in exchange for a lucrative fee.

The parents and guardians were told that the boys would be used to ride the camels at pereheras and other pageants and that the danger was zero since the animals would be moving at a trot accompanied by a trained handler.

This was enough to convince the unsuspecting parents and guardians. The child or children would later be escorted out of the country by an agent posing off as a guardian with doctored travel and other documents.

On arrival into the UAE, the boys are taken to an estate known as Jebel Ali that is the home of camel and horse stables owned by wealthy Arabs both in the UAE and elsewhere in the Gulf region. It would be the beginning of a nightmare for the camel jockeys.

Food was rationed at all times. It contained minimum protein since the boys had to remain in feather weight, a priority requirement for child jockeys since it provides the animal with a lesser burden during the race.

The children are strapped on to the back of the camel and instructed by the adult handler to hold on tight to the reins or risk falling and hurting themselves.

Not only that once the race is in progress, the terrified child jockeys begin to scream and this prompts the animal to gallop even faster which all a part of a pre-planned strategy by the handlers and owners.

As it would later be known, several children are known to have fallen during the race and some had even suffered broken limbs and serious fractures.

The exposure of the camel boy racket led to huge protests by child rights activists and the public here and overseas and a chorus of protests were made to the authorities in the UAE to bring an end to this inhuman practice.

The Sri Lankan authorities for their part tightened the rules for children leaving escorted or otherwise and a close check was maintained at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA).

Subsequently the matter was raised in Parliament and a Cabinet directive outlawing the recruitment of minors as jockeys or whatever saw the end of the sordid racket.

Some 42 boys were later brought down to the country at State expense while this writer was also provided with an opportunity to raise the issue at an international forum held in Chiang Mai Thailand in 1989.

But it was not the end of the camel races in the UAE. The operators started to bring in children from impoverished homes in Bangladesh and Nepal since the sport had to go on for the excitement of the wealthy in that part of the world.

Replaced by tiny robots

Today the child jockeys have been replaced by tiny robots as the modern day UAE has opted to fall in line with internationals laws and obligations while at the same time to maintain a clean face emirate.