Sarfraz, at 10, is too big to ride racing camels any more. After six years in bonded labour at stables and tracks on the wealthier side of the Arabian Sea, he was deported to Karachi. He has brought two ugly, ridged scars with him. They are testament to a terrifying career, the bites inflicted by angry dromedaries.
The camel-racing circuit may be the epitome of high life for wealthy sheikhs to show off champion camels, but it provides a bleak existence for its child jockeys. Sarfaz is among 340 small boys who have found their way back to Pakistan and the shelter of the rehabilitation centre in Karachi, funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has recently banned this brutal form of child labour.
The younger and lighter riders are, the faster camels can run, and the optimum weight is about 33lb. 'Children are given too little food,' Sarfaz told the Pakistani senator Tariq Azeem at the opening of the clinic. 'When there are no camel races, we are used for hard labour.'
A typical working day for these imported Asian children lasts 18 hours. Since the UAE banned underage jockeys on 31 March, young riders are being repatriated to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Yemen and Sudan.
But many jockeys still small enough to race have been whisked into hiding across the UAE frontiers so their minders can evade fines of 20,000 dirhams (pounds 2,860) or imprisonment. Clandestine races are reportedly being staged on remote desert flats. Though gambling is outlawed, lavish prize money is awarded by corporate or tribal sponsors, and underground bets are no secret.
Officials believe at least 2,000 child camel-jockeys from Pakistan remain in the UAE, but children's rights groups put the number far higher and fear that, under the new ban, prices paid for compliant youngsters will climb, thereby fuelling the black market.
At least 16,000 camels race at 17 official tracks in the UAE, and many more run in Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. To avoid scrutiny at airports, where Pakistani children will be required to carry passports, overland routes for human trafficking are opening on pilgrimage treks from Baluchistan through Iran. …