All posts by bmattison

No to Child Jockeys Yes to Robots

Countries such as The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt (just to name a few) have banned child camel jockeys in the traditional Bedouin sport because human rights groups said that children were getting injured, abducted, or even sold by their families. The U.S government reported that “each year, children as young as 2 are trafficked from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sudan for use as jockeys in the Persian Gulf States’ camel racing industry.” Good camel jockeys are small and light and this is why very young children are targeted. Often these boys come from poor families. Mr. Burney explains how children are brought into this work, “he says in some cases kidnappers grab the boys off the street, then smuggle them out of the country. Other times, well-dressed men approach poor families offering them charity.’And he will say I am a rich man and I want to sponsor some of the children,’ said Ansar Burney. ‘I want to give them education and a good future.’ But in this case, Mr. Burney says a good education means learning how to race camels.” 

Child camel jockeys are often sexually and physically abused. These children do not live in safe or healthy conditions and get strapped onto the camel in order to stay on. Camels can approach speeds of up to 40 kilometers an hour, so accidents are common. This results in boys often getting broken bones and some even trampled. A long term effect caused by all the constant friction and bouncing is kidney damage. Reporter Tom Phillips wrote that “these children were widely reported to suffer human rights abuses, and several countries – including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – have banned human jockeys outright.” 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was a tool for the U.S. to combat human trafficking. The Gulf States and the United States then worked together to try to end child trafficking. June Kunigi “says the UAE has also agreed with UNICEF to establish two rehabilitation centers for former child jockeys. Doctors and social workers will help the children recover until they can be repatriated and reunited with their families.” Since the children are so young and separated from their family, living overseas, they rely on their captors to survive. 

The young jockeys, children from the ages of about 6 to 13 are actually defending the traditional ways. They claim that they are better riders than the robots. They have nothing else and need to make money for their families and this need explains why they may feel this way.

Eid Hamdan Hassan, head of the Egyptian Camel Federation, believes that soon there will be no human camel jockeys. Part of the allure to camel racing is that when a camel wins their value goes up. Now with the robots, races can still happen without harming young children. The development of these robots started in 2001 ”when Qatari authorities approached Swiss robotics manufacturer K-Team about creating an alternative to human jockeys in anticipation of a ban.” The first models of robots came out in 2003 and were awkward and heavy, the camels didn’t like them and they were hard to get. The Swiss version of the robot made its debut in 2004 and has become more widespread in the Arab world. Now the robots are more streamlined and owners can even find clothes for them to make them look like tiny jockeys. A generic model of a robot costs about $500. The use of child jockeys was banned in 2005 and it has not been completely eradicated, but the robots are a good alternative. 

When racing with robots the owners and trainers have a bit more control over the camels unlike when the children were the jockeys. The owners or trainers of the camels drive along next to the track and into a walkie-talkie they will make a throaty nose to coax the camels along. Sam Borden, author of The New York Times article “Sprinting Over the Dirt, With a Robot on the Hump” gives a detailed description of the mechanics behind the robots:

 “The Dewalt power drill is the heart and lungs of the modern robot jockey; shop workers like Raheem and Jameel order the drills in bulk and use them, and their rechargeable batteries, to construct the core of each robot. Remote-entry clickers (the kind used for cars) combine with long ribbons of plastic wrapped in cotton to make a spinning whip that can be activated from afar, and walkie-talkies allow the owner to speak to the camel from a trailing S.U.V.”

  These jockeys have been an attractive substitute to children, but there is some question as to whether or not there is some resistance and if the camels are treated well. To own a camel is expensive but the owners take pride in them and take good care of them as Mr. Borden explained, “owning a camel is an honor in many Gulf countries, and there are laws about how much tax a camel owner must pay (it depends, in part, on how many camels he or she owns). Camels can also be used to pay a woman’s dowry — prices vary — or as collateral in a trade of goods or services.” The safety and health of the camels is clearly a priority. As for the children Mr. Borden continues to say that “some owners said quietly that they still might prefer to have human jockeys, though none would say so publicly.  But a majority, perhaps recognizing the troubling perception of having children ride animals that stand 6 feet tall and can run up to 40 miles per hour, unabashedly praised the technology now widely used instead: robots.” 

It seems that this solution to a human’s right issue has been well-received and accepted by all parties. If there are people that do not like this change it appears that they are a minority and, therefore, are not speaking out against it. The camels are treated well and the children have started to be returned to their families. Hopefully the robots will continue the good work.