The first rehabilitation centre for young camel jockeys in Abu Dhabi is in acordance with the government's policy to eliminate the use of underage boys in this sport.

The centre is the first of its kind in the world dedicated to helping the boys after they are rescued by authorities. It will be run by the UAE authorities in association with the Ansar Burney Welfare Trust International in Pakistan (ABWTI).

Ansar Burney, a human rights activist and chairman of ABWTI, spoke to Gulf News in an exclusive interview about the plight of these children, what can be done to help them and prevent future abuses.

"The centre was established on the orders of Lieutenant General Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, to eliminate the use of under-age camel jockeys in races," said Burney, who met Shaikh Mohammad last week.

Burney said the centre, which has been established in Shaikh Zayed Military City in the capital, has all the facilities the children need for a better future, such as healthcare and education.

Doctors, physiotherapists and psychologists will help rehabilitate children rescued from camps throughout the country.

"The children who are rescued from these camps will be kept at the centre for four to eight weeks before being repatriated to their home countries.

"Some 400 children can be accommodated at the centre, which is expected to start its work from Thursday [today]," he said, adding that the UAE Government is taking historic steps to end the problem.

Burney, who has been given a residence visa, also has permission to rescue underage children smuggled into the country.

"During my meeting with Shaikh Mohammad, he told me that the government is committed to resolving the issue of camel jockeys and wants me to work for eliminating this problem," said Burney, who also met Major General Shaikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Interior Minister.

Burney, who has repatriated 379 under-age jockeys this year, will also establish rehabilitation centres in Pakistan and Bangla-desh to help repatriated children.

The UAE is the first government with a camel racing industry to ban the use of underage, underweight jockeys.

A law that came into effect on September 1, 2002, bans the use of children younger than 15 as camel jockeys. For a first offence a fine of Dh20,000 is imposed.

A second offence earns a ban from participating in the camel races for one year, while the third and subsequent offences will result in a prison term.

These measures were introduced in an effort to maintain camel racing as a worthy sport that meets its objectives.

The UAE Ministry of Interior is responsible for implementing the rules, in association with the local municipalities, while the country's airports and seaports have also been notified to ensure that no child younger than 15 is admitted when authorities suspect he is being brought in as a camel jockey.

The UAE Government has started to take steps with regard to the rights of children and their general welfare. This was confirmed in a report released this year by the US State Department.

It said: "Trafficking of young children employed as camel jockeys continued to be a problem; however, the government took measures to eliminate the use of boys younger than 15 as camel jockeys.

"Camel jockeys are required to have government-issued identification cards, which are issued after physical examinations by a special medical committee using X-rays and other tests to confirm that the children are at least 15 years of age.

"The government also regularly performs DNA testing to prove the relationship of foreign boys coming into the country to work in the camel racing industry and adults claiming to be their parents."

The issue of camel jockeys flared up recently after a video made by the Ansar Burney Welfare Trust International on the plight of underage camel jockeys was run on the American television channel HBO for its programme Race Sports.

"The film caught the attention of UAE leaders who invited me over to Abu Dhabi, where I was assured of all the government support I need in eradicating this menace from the country. The documentary also shows the ordeal faced by some of the young camel jockeys," Burney said.

He said the real culprits responsible for committing this crime are "agents" who smuggle children from third-world countries.

"They are well-connected and even have the backing of politicians in their respective countries," he said.

He said more than 40,000 innocent children, mostly from countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Ethiopia, are being used in the Middle East and North Africa as camel jockeys.

"During training and in races, they often fall down and are badly injured ... Because it's illegal to keep underage jockeys, they never receive medical treatment and often suffer prolonged pain and some of them even die.

"The issue of child trafficking in racing is complex. Extreme poverty plays a major role.

"It is far easier to persuade parents to part with their children if the family has the threat of poverty, unemployment and ignorance hanging over them," Burney said.