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Dhaka Tribune

The tale of ending the use of Bangladeshi children as camel jockeys

The sale of South Asians into bondage in Middle Eastern countries has long been one of the symptoms of the region’s poverty

Update : 04 Feb 2021, 07:23 PM

It was not many years ago when we saw Bangladeshi children being used as camel jockeys in any Arab country, far from their sweet homes.

The doleful situation has changed over the years but there are untold stories behind ending the use of Bangladeshi children as camel jockeys. The country had seen repatriation of camel jockeys from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) back in August 2005, too.

It was a quick step taken by the then Opposition Leader and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after a campaign launched by current Foreign Minister Dr AK Abdul Momen that helped bring an end to the use of Bangladeshi children as camel jockeys, in early 1991.

He was a professor of business management at Merrimac College in Massachusetts at that time.

Dr Momen worked as an Economic Adviser (Consultant) at the Saudi Industrial Development Fund under the Saudi Ministry of Finance and National Economy as an expert and has a long history of taking bold initiatives, often to help the poor and the disadvantaged.

For example, he picked up the case of ‘trafficking of women and children into slave like servitude’ and ‘child labour’ in early 1990s and he succeeded in reducing trafficking especially camel jockeys in the Gulf countries.

“Many officers hurled derogatory remarks at me. But the success would not have come so quickly unless our leader Hasina raises her voice at parliament,” Momen, who dreamt of a safe place for all children and women, told UNB at his residence recently.

He said he was very happy as all American media outlets ran stories on his campaign against the use of children as camel jockeys and abuse of young women abroad. “The world media picked up the issue quickly.”

While visiting Dubai from Boston, Momen saw about 60-70 children, mostly from Bangladesh, were working at a place as camel jockeys.

“I got worried after seeing them. I heard about the practice but I had no idea how dangerous it could be,” he said describing how they launched a campaign to end the inhumane practice.

Rallying support

Dr Momen, who was Chair of the Department of Economics and Business, Framingham State University, Massachusetts, went back to the US with a heavy heart seeing very weak health conditions of Bangladeshi children and later shared the story with his students.

Jockeys, most of whom are children, compete on their mounts during the 18th International Camel Racing festival at the Sarabium desert in Ismailia | Reuters

“They [students] got worried, too. We decided to go for a movement against using children as camel jockeys,” said the foreign minister, who captured some photos of children who were working as camel jockeys.

The BNP government was ruling the country at that time, Momen recalled. “We informed it to the then BNP government so that they could take initiatives to stop the use of Bangladeshi children as camel jockeys. But the government didn’t feel able to reply to us.”

By this time, the issue appeared in the media, he remembered saying there were media reports on detention of children in various places.

“We came to know that the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was coming to New York to attend the UN General Assembly. We sought her appointment. She didn’t agree,” Momen said, mentioning that 25 children were detained in Mumbai on their way to Dubai.

“I came to know about it but I had no contact in Mumbai. I contacted our New Delhi Mission. Farooq Sobhan was the High Commissioner at that time,” he said, adding that getting no contact in Mumbai, he decided to run an advertisement in Indian radio seeking information.

The first person who called Momen was Amartya Sen, the Indian economist and later Nobel Laureate, who was teaching at Harvard University. And Sen helped Momen establish a contact in Mumbai.

“I came to know that all the children detained in Mumbai are Bangladeshis. They speak Bangla. And Bangladesh Mission will verify them if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asks the Bangladesh Mission in Delhi,” said Momen who sought custody of the children.

Enter Sheikh Hasina

By this time, the then Opposition Leader Sheikh Hasina paid a visit to Boston, US. “I met her.”

Though Khaleda Zia did not want to give an appointment to meet her, she agreed to meet seeing the weight of the delegation led by former Congressman Joe Kennedy. Sabih Uddin, the then PS to Khleda Zia, dropped the delegation seeing the name of Dr Momen but the meeting was held at last.

“We met her with many relevant documents but she did not say anything. We talked about women trafficking but she kept mum. It was totally a flop meeting.”

Then, Momen met Sheikh Hasina and shared it with her. “She instantly said she would raise it in parliament. I told her to raise it and millions of voices will join her. She told me, listen, it’s my issue.”

Accordingly, Sheikh Hasina raised the camel jockey issue in Bangladesh Parliament.

“One fine morning, I received a letter from the government noting that the government has allowed me to take the custody of 25 children rescued in Mumbai,” Momen said.

There was a condition that the children will be brought back to Bangladesh and the government, whenever it wishes to, can take custody of those 25 children. “I agreed,” he said.

It took a long time to get the children back to Bangladesh in two phases due to various issues.

Seventeen of the 25 were returned to an orphanage in Bangladesh and eight were held in Bombay as witnesses against accused traffickers for a trial in India.

Getting int’l community involved

Dr Momen recalled that two resolutions were adopted in the 9th Saarc Summit in Male in 1997, in which he was invited to join but could not attend due to his routine classes. The resolutions were on the Saarc Fund to help child victims and end trafficking of women and children.

There were number of hearings on child labour and slave trade trafficking in the US Congress and the US Commerce Department where he participated and eventually it resulted in a model arrangement to help children/families.

When he was in Saudi Arabia, he picked up the issue of ‘abuse of expatriate workers in the oil-rich Middle East countries’ and succeeded in promoting and protecting the rights of expatriate workers.

The WTO included a new provision to prevent abuse of expatriate workers in the Middle East plus many Arab countries became more sensitive to the issue.

Because of his humanitarian works, he received many awards. He also served as the President of Women and Children International (WCI), Inc., a Boston-based ‘not for profit’ Humanitarian organization.

It was instrumental to repatriate and rehabilitate a few minor boys, all below the age of five, from being sold as camel jockeys in the Gulf countries.

WCI, along with others, successfully lobbied in passing two bills in the US Congress on ‘sexual exploitation of minor children’ and ‘genital mutilation of minor girls’.

It was also successful in pursuing the Heads of Saarc countries (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) to incorporate the issue of trafficking of women and children at their Summit Meeting and in setting up of a Fund to help the victims.

Dr Momen arranged US Congressional Hearing on ‘Asian Slave Trade’.

Representative Joseph P Kennedy II announced a campaign to stir international outrage over the selling of South Asian women and children into slavery in the Middle East.

“Every civilized nation in the world community should be outraged” by such practices, the Massachusetts Democrat said in letters to the United Nations, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Momen and officials of human rights monitor organizations said the sale of South Asians into bondage in Middle Eastern countries has long been one of the symptoms of the region’s poverty, with the victims including Indian, Pakistani and Nepali women and children as well as Bangladeshis.

He also said traffickers from South Asian or Arab countries buy the children from poor families, take them overland to the ports of Bombay or Karachi, then by ship to Middle Eastern purchasers.

Pandemic cancels races

Hundreds attend weekly races from September to April but the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At race tracks, camel handlers work in closer proximity as they jostle and guide camels to and from the starting line.

Wealthy owners and traders usually watch races from their cars, driving alongside the track.

However, extensive socialisation takes place after races, when owners and traders congregate at prominent majlises near the track.

Two festivals are scheduled for next season. The Dubai Crown Prince Camel Festival will run from January 23 to February 4, 2021 and the circuit's grand finale, Al Marmoum Heritage Festival, will run from March 28 to April 8, 2021.

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