Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Young boys, many from poor African and South Asian countries, are being illegally brought into the Gulf state of Qatar to be trained and used as camel jockeys, despite laws in that country that prohibit human trafficking and child labor, according to a published report.
The government and a family affairs body are investigating the practice, the country's Gulf Times reports.
Most of the children enter Qatar from Sudan. They are either sold to "custodians" by desperate, poverty-stricken parents, or kidnapped by employment agents and smuggled into the country.
Some of them have been trained for camel racing from as young as two-years-old, and the "custodian" pockets the fee the boys make for each race, the report says.
Camel racing can be extremely dangerous: the children are strapped to the camels during the event, and some have been crushed to death in falls.
They are also often under-nourished, as custodians attempt to keep their weight down.
A custodian who was once a jockey himself told the paper: "There are many injuries to child jockeys. Bleeding due to constant pressure on the back end and smashing of the genitals is common and indescribably painful. Most of the jockeys become impotent because of the friction and there is no medical treatment available."
If injury makes it impossible for a jockey to continue racing, he is likely to be abandoned. They have no papers since they come into the country illegally. On occasion, unclaimed children are referred to social services agencies, which contact their embassies. They are eventually repatriated.
The future of those who don't make it to social services is unclear.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Faisal al-Thani, the president of Qatar's race-organizing body, and also a member of the ruling royal family, agreed that the practice was hard on children but said there was no point in being hasty while the family affairs council was investigating the matter.
"I agree this has sullied Qatar's image abroad and this is also a part of the discussions going on," he was quoted as saying. "We don't like it but we are looking for alternatives."
According to the U.S. State Department's 1999 report on human rights around the world, similar abuses are occurring in the United Arab Emirates. UAE police were investigating several cases involving child smuggling, but at the time the report was published last year, no arrests had been made.
In the UAE, too, human trafficking and employment of children are illegal. The government does not issue visas to foreign workers under the age of 16.
In 1993, the UAE instituted a ban prohibiting the use of jockeys weighing less than 99 pounds and under the age of 15, but observers say the ban has not been very effective.
Relevant labor laws often are not enforced, as the majority of those who own racing camels and employ children come from powerful local families.
Jehane Sedky-Lavandero, spokesperson for the Child Protection Issues Department at UNICEF says that the agency is not actively working on the issue of trafficking children to Qatar or the UAE for use as camel jockeys.
"Unfortunately, we do not have country programs in the UAE and Qatar and therefore cannot comment any further than to say that although we have had sporadic reports of trafficking going on in these countries, we do not believe that it is a significant problem."
Save the Children spokesperson Dana Freeman said that international charity also did not have country programs in Qatar or the UAE, "so we have no involvement in this issue."
Ambassador Bader Al-Dafa of the Qatari Embassy in Washington was unavailable for comment.