Olivia Long

Why are Iranian people risking their lives to reach the UK?

Zena Belhalfaoui, Help Refugees volunteer in Calais.


Namdar Baghaei-Yazdi still remembers the warm welcome he received in the UK when he and his family fled the revolution in Iran forty years ago, in 1979. They were forced to flee after his father was executed by a newly-formed Iranian government.


“We came here and we were very much welcomed”, Namdar says, describing how back then Home Office officials would meet the family at their local refugee centre, rather than make them travel all the way to their official offices.

This welcome couldn’t be more at odds with the Home Office’s now hostile response to people fleeing war and persecution, exemplified in Sajid Javid’s recent labelling of the very small rise in the number of boats crossing the Channel as a ‘major incident’.

Since this declaration, the Home Office has been unlawfully deporting people to Calais without adequately assessing their asylum claims. The aim: to deter asylum seekers attempting or planning to attempt the journey to the UK.

We want to take a moment to debunk the hate-fueled narrative surrounding Iranian refugees coming to the UK from Calais, by explaining why these people flee their homes and why they have a right to claim asylum where they choose.


Why are people fleeing Iran?


The 1979 Iranian Revolution installed a new, ultra conservative dictatorship in the country. Since then, human rights violations there have been well-documented and all too commonplace.

Executions continue to occur frequently, particularly for drugs-related offenses. 273 were reported in 2018, the second-highest in the world last year. Iran’s judiciary is also targeting journalists, online media activists and human rights defenders in an ongoing crackdown on the freedom of speech, in blatant disregard of international and domestic legal standards.

Iran ranks as the 18th worst country in the world for freedom of expression. As a result, scores of human rights defenders and political activists remain behind bars for their peaceful activism, with little idea of when or if they will be freed. Laws surrounding notions of modesty, morality and public decency are also incredibly strict: just this week a young couple was arrested after a video clip of their public marriage proposal went viral. The justification for the arrest provided by Iranian authorities was that the proposal contravened the country’s “religious and cultural values”.


People protest in 2017 in support of Soheil Arabi, a prominent political prisoner.


Why are they claiming asylum in the UK?


In reality, an incredibly small proportion of displaced people from Iran claim asylum in the UK each year. In 2018, 500 people attempted to cross the channel in small vessels. So far in 2019, this figure stands at just over 130.

In the media, people attempting the crossing have been vilified and labelled ‘illegal immigrants’. Their claims to asylum have been rejected before they have even been made.

Sajid Javid publicly questioned whether the people in these boats were genuine asylum seekers, completely ignoring their legal, human right to proper assessment. Before speaking to them, before listening and understanding each of their stories, a decision had been made: one entrenched in hostility and one which contravenes international law.

If we look at recent asylum statistics for the year ended September 2018, 47% of all asylum claims by people from Iran were accepted. Of those rejected, 46% won on appeal. This means that roughly three-quarters of all people from Iran are granted refugee status.

For the reasons listed above, and looking at the acception rate in the UK, it’s clear that the huge majority of people fleeing Iran do so because their lives are at risk.


But why the UK?


Again, a very small minority are trying to claim asylum in the UK. For the most part, people have little choice in where they seek asylum. In the cases where people do have some degree of choice, it is primarily based on language, colonial links between their home country and the new country, having family or friends in the new country, or a belief that the new country is safe, tolerant and democratic.

Refugees are under no obligation to claim asylum in the first country they reach. Given this, the chances are that the large majority of Iranian asylum seekers attempting the crossing would be granted refugee status. The UK is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and must start adhering to it to ensure that these people are given the protection they deserve.


How should the Home Secretary respond?


The Home Office is adamant that asylum seekers entering illegally must be deported quickly in order to deter others from making a similar journey. In so doing, though, we are neglecting our international duty – not to mention our legal and moral responsibility – to protect the rights of those who have been displaced.


The plea to the British Home Secretary is this: give people hope. Respect their human rights and don’t push them further into the margins of society. Don’t use the recent boats crossing the Channel as an excuse to clamp down hard on innocent people. Don’t pander to the divisive rhetoric prevalent in so much of the British press.


We need strong leaders willing to work on real solutions, who are ready to cooperate with groups and governments to protect people from exploitation and abuse. Let’s transform the hostile environment into the hospitable environment and work together to give sanctuary to those in need.

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“Right to rent” checks ruled discriminatory

Last week, the High Court ruled that the ‘Right to Rent’ checks – implemented in the UK under the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy as a way of preventing irregular migrants renting homes – have been causing racial and nationality-based discrimination on the part of landlords against prospective tenants. Such discrimination, the judge ruled in response to a challenge from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. He declared that the government has acted outside the limits of human rights law and that to extend the scheme beyond England in to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be irrational and unlawful.


Representatives of the Home Office attempted to argue that a) such discrimination is not happening on the large scale that is being suggested, and b) that even if it is happening it is the fault of the landlords, not of the Home Office itself. This argument was rejected by the judge, who said that if the scheme had not been put in place landlords would not have felt it necessary to discriminate in this way:


It is my view that the scheme introduced by the government does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not… the Government cannot wash its hands of responsibility for the discrimination which is taking place by asserting that such discrimination is carried out by landlords acting contrary to the intention of the Scheme”.

– Mr Justice Martin Spencer 


The ruling has been celebrated by civil society rights groups and asylum-seeking individuals across the UK, but unfortunately the Home Office has been granted permission to appeal the decision, arguing that it cannot be blamed for the actions of individual landlords. With no system of monitoring and evaluation in place from the government for the scheme itself, though, it is difficult to see how Home Office representatives will be able to prove this, and we sincerely hope that the appeal is an unsuccessful one.


The Government’s hostile environment policy has made claiming asylum in the UK a miserable process. When it was introduced in 2012-13, Theresa May described one of its key principles as being to “deport first and hear appeals later”, setting a bleak scene for the approach towards asylum seekers in the years that have followed. The UK is now one of the most unwelcoming countries in which to claim asylum. The number of people being granted refugee status is dropping year on year (most recent statistics can be viewed here), and Sajid Javid’s public statements about people crossing the Channel in boats – not to mention his response to the recent case of Shamima Begum – serve as a demonstration of the hostile and insular direction in which our politicians want to take us.


We cannot let such attitudes continue to govern our response to people in need of protection and support. We welcome last week’s decision on the ‘right to rent’ checks and look forward to supporting all future efforts to ensure it is not overturned.

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Women in Calais

According to the UNHCR, women and girls make up around 50 percent of refugee, internally displaced and stateless populations. Those who are unaccompanied, pregnant women, heads of households, the disabled and the elderly are especially vulnerable. 


On their journeys to safety, displaced women and girls are likely to have faced abuse, sexual violence, and exploitation. The UN reports that 60 percent of preventable maternal deaths take place in humanitarian settings, and at least 1 in 5 displaced women are estimated to have experienced sexual violence.


For the past few months I have been working with several women and families living in camps around Calais. Although there are only between 5 and 10 women, and a handful of families living outside in Calais, they camp alongside hundreds of men all trying to cross the border to the UK.


Added to the daily turmoil people face living outside in makeshift camps – staying warm, accessing food, water and showers, avoiding police harassment – women here are vulnerable to gender-based violence, exploitation and everyday misogyny. As a female volunteer, the experience of being surrounded by large groups of men can, at times, be intimidating. It is impossible to fathom how it must feel as a woman living in such a disproportionate setting.


This is not to overshadow the experiences of the displaced male population in Calais. A recent report published by the Human Rights Observers team in Calais documents that between 1 November 2017 and 1 November 2018 there were 972 incidents reported relating to disproportionate physical violence, the use of teargas, destruction of personal property and other rights abuses by French police.


Lack of shelter and adequate sanitation, forced clearances occurring every other day, and police abuses of power such as the use of chemical agents and arbitrary arrests, combine to make the camps’ living environments impossible for both men and women – severely damaging their mental and physical health. But women and families face an additional set of challenges in comparison to men in the hostile environment, and must not be forgotten in the story of Calais.


In France’s official accommodation centres for asylum seekers, living conditions are similarly inadequate: we have heard reports of cockroaches, a single room for a five-person family and no food provisions or follow-up support. There is also a lack of information within the registration process, so many women and families are unwilling to put themselves forward because they are uncertain of where it will place them legally or of what happens if they are evicted from a centre (or indeed if they leave of their own volition).


A family from Kurdish Iraq refuse to go to an accommodation centre, knowing that to go through the process would stall their journey to the UK. Instead they stay, as the only family in a camp of 100 men, steeling themselves against the fast approaching winter. The four children regularly fall over in the mud as they run around playing, and their mother has no access to clothes washing facilities. Her youngest, just three years old, repeatedly stands in human faeces. They camp next to a busy road, and both parents are always watching out for their kids running across, at risk of seriously injuring themselves in an accident.


I play a game with the 8-year old daughter. She runs off, and I can’t find her for a minute. I panic, and later realise this panic must be a constant for the parents, and how this must shape their interactions with their children, and their own mental health. The oldest son, 13, has stepped up to watch over his younger siblings, and he speaks English incredibly well. He should be in school learning, not carrying the responsibility of being the translator for his family’s interactions with charity representatives.



Five Ethiopian women meet us on an unlit street in winter’s afternoon darkness, near to the toilets used by two camps of over 300 men. According to international guidelines, male and female toilets in refugee camps are supposed to be separate and marked as such. The doors are also supposed to have locks to prevent sexual attacks. But in Calais, with no formal refugee camp for those attempting to reach the UK, women must share toilets with men, and have no access to proper washing facilities. This increases an already higher risk of experiencing gender based violence or sexual abuse. Without the money to pay off a smuggler, the women regularly attempt to jump on lorries, just as the men in their community do, and all have travelled independently from their country.


A woman from Iran draws a love heart in the sand. She writes two initials inside it; the first letter of the names of her husband and her child. She left them behind in Iran, and hopes to be reunited with them when she reaches the UK. But for now she is trapped in the purgatory that is Calais, pretending her friend is her husband, in order to protect herself in the male-dominated camp. She will have the option of family reunification only after she arrives in Britain, but it is impossible to know when that will be, as she must first risk her life to get there, denied the option of claiming asylum from this border.


These stories highlight the need for the UK to offer a safe passage for all people where the border is controlled in Northern France. At the moment, people risk their lives jumping on trucks, climbing aboard ferries, even, in recent weeks, sailing across on small boats. In 2015 a Syrian child washed up on Greek shores and made international headlines. Must we only accept responsibility when the same happens on the shores of Kent?


Though very little statistical information on refugee women is available, those statistics that are accessible indicate the depths of indignity, fear and violence that vulnerable women face in their journeys to safety:


  • Sexual and gender-based violence: GBV in refugee camps, though also under-reported, remains a key concern for vulnerable women with justified fears of rape and other forms of GBV, with one in four cases reported being sexual violence.
  • Early and forced marriage: statistics on early and forced marriage amongst the Syrian refugee community in Jordan, for instance, indicate the extent of the trend. In 2013, of the 2,936 registered marriages of Syrians in Jordan, approximately 25% involved a Syrian child between the ages of 15-17 and the majority of these children are girls. Refugee camps are woefully under-equipped and over-subscribed, and are unable to provide adequate support to vulnerable girls getting married at a young age.
  • Sexual and reproductive health: the use of contraceptives amongst vulnerable Syrian women has dropped from pre-civil war rates in Syria, which used to be in the region of 60%, to only 34% amongst refugee women in Lebanon. Less than 70% of Syrian women refugees surveyed have any knowledge of family planning and how it can be accessed, demonstrating a widening information gap which speaks to a lack of awareness amongst Syrian women in Lebanon.
  • Safety in host countries: in a study conducted by the IRC that interviewed 135 female heads of household taking refuge in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, approximately half of participants left the house less in their host country than when they were living in Syria, as well as reporting feeling isolated and imprisoned in their own homes. Further, 60% of women expressed feelings of insecurity, and one in three women stated that they felt too scared or overwhelmed to leave their homes at all, often a result of refugee women living in insecure and temporary housing with poor security.


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Uprisings in Sudan

A civil rights revolution is taking place in Sudan, with hundreds of protests across the country since mid-December 2018. Governmental security forces have been responding with a show of strength in a brutal campaign of violence and harassment.

There have been reports from inside the country of excessive use of teargas and live ammunition, torture and illegal detainment. Journalists have been arrested and university buildings have been shut down. According to opposition groups, over fifty people have now been killed. Protester and recent university graduate, Abdul-Metaal Saboun, told Associated Press he was detained and tortured for three days for taking part in a demonstration, but that he has not been discouraged. “We have no choice but to resist”, he said; “there is nothing that makes me frightened of them anymore”.

Like Saboun many of those protesting in Sudan are young, in their 20s and 30s, which has led to comparisons with the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Demonstrations were initially triggered by measures taken in the face of worsening economic conditions (such as the tripling of the price of bread), following the loss of 75% of the country’s oil reserves when South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011. These oil fields accounted for 50% of Sudan’s GDP at the time of the secession and as a result inflation has risen dramatically over the last eight years. Half of Sudan’s population now lives below the poverty line.

Following the outrage over the rising cost of basic commodities, demonstrations countrywide have grown to incorporate grievances of all kinds. As with the Arab Spring, protesters are calling for increased individual freedoms and recognition of their human rights. President Omar al-Bashir – who has been in power for almost three decades – is refusing to step down despite repeated calls for him to do so.

UNICEF is calling on Sudanese authorities to prioritise the protection and safeguarding of children – after reports that some minors have been killed – and to ensure the upholding of their rights and access to both education and health in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

According to Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch, “the longer the protests go on, the more violence and abuses we might see the Sudanese government use… the government uses the same sorts of tactics every time there are protests. The risk is that it will get bloodier”.

If al-Bashir does resign, says the the International Crisis Group, a democratic change in leadership may allow for a peaceful transition. The Group is pushing for international governments to create incentives for al-Bashir to step down.

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80,000 Nigerians displaced

Since November last year there has been an increase in clashes between rebel groups and the military in Nigeria, mainly in Borno State, leading to 80,000 people being forced to flee their homes to seek safety elsewhere. This is in addition to the 1.8 million who have already been displaced internally by conflict in recent years. A further 6,000 people – most of whom are women and children – have fled across the border to Chad to take refuge in the region surrounding Lake Chad.

Of those “on the move” inside Nigeria, the UNHCR has reported that 312,000 people are in need of immediate, life-saving care. Humanitarian teams on the ground are also concerned that the Presidential elections on 16th February will result in increased fighting and violence, contributing to further injury, insecurity and displacement across the country. The UN has made statements requesting that all those involved in fighting work to protect civilians and uphold international law.

Throughout 2018 Nigeria experienced several bouts of violence, due for the most part to competition for water and land resources. Hostility was exacerbated by dissatisfaction with the ruling president, Muhammadu Buhari, and his party, the APC.

Earlier this year the IRC placed Nigeria in the top ten of those countries most at-risk of humanitarian disaster in 2019, just behind Syria and the Central African Republic.

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UN member states adopt global migration pact

In a historic turn of events, a global migration deal – the very first international deal pertaining to the recent migration crisis – aiming to “prevent suffering and chaos” for migrants was agreed upon on Monday at an intergovernmental conference in Morocco.  

Leaders from 164 UN countries signed the non-legally binding agreement, which looks to better coordinate migration issues at local, national, regional and global levels. This will include increased focus on tackling the dangers refugees and migrants are faced with while on the move.

According to IOM more than 3,300 people have died in the process of migrating towards an international destination in 2018. Since the year 2000, this number amounts to more than 60,000 people. It is hoped that if upheld the global migration compact will go a long way towards reducing these numbers by encouraging policies for safe, legal migration. It serves to reinforce the fundamental principle of the right to fair and dignified movement across borders for all people.

Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general, said at the conference that “migration has always been with us. But in a world where it is ever more inevitable and necessary, it should be well managed and safe, not irregular and dangerous. National policies are far more likely to succeed with international cooperation.”

The USA has refused to sign the deal, along with Australia, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Chile and the Dominican Republic. Switzerland, Israel and Italy have yet to decide whether or not they too will back out of the agreement. Despite Donald Trump’s lack of support, the UN General Assembly is expected to meet in New York on 19th December to formally adopt a resolution endorsing the deal.

You can read the final draft of the compact here, and the UN’s own coverage of the meeting here.

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Search and rescue ship Aquarius ends operations in the Mediterranean Sea

We are saddened by the news that the last civilian search and rescue vessel operating off the coast of Libya has this week ended its operations. Over the past few years the Aquarius ship, run by SOS Méditerranée and MSF, has saved the lives of tens of thousands of people attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe whilst fleeing their homes as a result of conflict, persecution and poverty.

This final closure comes at the end of what MSF and SOS Méditerranée have described as a “a relentless ongoing political, judicial and administrative campaign” by European governments, involving efforts to sabotage the saving of lives and criminalise humanitarian rescue missions. In September Italian courts accused the ship’s crew of illegally dumping potentially dangerous medical waste among ordinary rubbish on the Sicilian coast, and ordered the ship to be impounded. It has since lost its Panamanian licence and been unable to leave the French port of Marseilles.

Earlier this year the ship was left stranded in central Mediterranean waters for a week, while European governments tried to negotiate out of a political stalemate over which country would take responsibility for the 141 passengers on board. Speaking of the failure of European governments to support search and rescue operations Sophie Beau, co-founder of SOS Méditerranée, said last month that “it is a criminal policy for Europe to allow people to die at sea when we know we can save these lives. If European countries are not able to provide a framework to allow us to fulfil our humanitarian obligation, this undermines the fundamental principles of our democracies and ultimately we will all pay the political cost.”

The cessation of Aquarius’ activities means that all five of the civilian search and rescue ships which have been operating in Mediterranean waters since the beginning of the “refugee crisis” have now stopped. The only ships in the area now are run by Libyan authorities, and according to humanitarian agencies on the ground these are not equipped to deal with the sheer number of people continuing to make the journey. IOM data shows that this number has been steadily increasing in 2018, and over 2000 people have already lost their lives at sea. With the Aquarius out of action this number is only set to rise.

Head of MSF in the UK, Vickie Hawkins, said in a statement that “the end of Aquarius means more lives lost; more avoidable deaths that will go unwitnessed and unrecorded. It really is a case of ’out of sight out of mind’ for UK and European leaders as men, women and children perish”.

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What’s happening in Yemen?

Five million Yemeni children – and 8.4 million Yemenis in total – are facing famine as the country endures what the UN has described as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern times.

Food items and medicine are 500% more expensive in some areas than they were before the civil war, and 18 million of the country’s 29 million citizens lack access to regular, nutritious meals. In some remote parts of the country families have resorted to eating leaves to survive, after distribution of aid to their areas was prevented by local authorities.


Why is there a war in Yemen?

Fighting broke out in 2014 between Houthi rebels and Yemen’s internationally-backed government. The Houthis took control of the country’s capital, Sana’a, and the government fled the country. In response, in 2015 a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia launched a military campaign aiming to restore power to the government. The war has continued ever since, with international involvement on both sides. The country is currently controlled by four groups: Houthis (rebels), Ansar al-Sharia (Al-Qaeda), Islamic State and the Saudi coalition.

Due to the unstable nature of the environment it is very difficult to accurately record the number of people who have been killed and injured during the conflict. As of January 2017 the number of recorded civilian deaths stood at 10,000, with the number of wounded at 40,000. Now, almost 18 months later, those numbers are likely to be significantly higher.

As well as severely limiting access to food and food production, the fighting in Yemen has led to the destruction of crucial health and sanitation infrastructure, increasing the population’s vulnerability to disease – a rapidly-spreading cholera epidemic has so far affected more than a million people, including at least 600,000 children.


Millions of people have been displaced.

The UN estimates that over 3 million people have been displaced internally and over 280,00 have fled to claim asylum in other countries, such as Djibouti and Somalia.

In Djibouti, Markazi refugee camp is housing thousands of people who have escaped across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. Djibouti is currently home to 27,000 displaced people, 4,000 of whom are Yemeni.

There is also a very active migration route in the opposite direction: thousands of people from Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea are regularly attempting to cross Yemen, via the Gulf of Aden, to reach more stable Gulf states or Europe. More than 100,000 people are expected to have attempted this route by the end of the year, with many of them dying on the way. Others are caught up in dangerous, violent smuggling operations or held in appalling conditions in makeshift detention camps on the edge of Yemen. The ongoing conflict means no security measures are in place to put a stop to this.


What’s going to happen next?

The US, UK and France supply most of the weaponry being used by the coalition through arms trade with the states involved, yet despite the high number of casualties they have not stopped supplies. It is expected that violence in the country will continue until some kind of agreement, backed by all members of the UN Security Council, is reached.

Last week the US called for talks to be arranged in Sweden by the UN, between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels, as well as a 30-day ceasefire within the country. The rest of the Security Council has not yet backed this move. Until a ceasefire agreement is reached and peace is negotiated in the country people will continue to be displaced, ending up in appalling conditions in camps and on the streets across the Middle East and Europe.

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3,000 chairs, one message: artists in support of child refugees

Author Nicola Davies was outraged at the government’s lack of compassion towards unaccompanied refugee children. So she started a campaign – which became a book – telling the story of a young refugee’s journey.

Illustration by Rob Biddulph

In response to the UK government’s lack of compassion towards refugees and inspired by Lord Alf Dubs’ campaign to welcome 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children to the UK, in 2016 Nicola Davies wrote a poem. This poem, ‘The Day the War Came‘, sparked a successful campaign that became the 3,000 chairs movement.

This movement  drew attention to the 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children to whom the UK government decided not to give a safe haven. Nicola called on everyone who was outraged by this paint, draw or sketch an empty chair and share it on Twitter with #3000chairs.

Nicola and illustrator Rebecca Cobbs have now created a book which follows the story of a young girl who flees her war-torn home and ends up in a new country, where she is turned away from school because there is no spare chair for her to sit on. In the end, the other children offer her their chairs, and their friendship. Nicola says we could make the world a much better, kinder place if we all followed the example of these children.

£1 from every copy of The Day the War Came sold is being donated to Help Refugees. We are so very grateful that Nicola, Rebecca and Walker Books have chosen to support us. Buy a copy of this incredible book

Some of the incredible submissions for 3,000 chairs.

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Meet Mahmoud, the Syrian refugee creating unique gifts that bring people together.

Mahmoud is from Damascus in Syria. Having fled to Greece, he found himself stuck in Softex refugee camp, on the edge of the country’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Based in and around the warehouse of an old Softex toilet roll factory, the camp was notorious for its crime and deprivation. It was here that Mahmoud refused to resign himself to a long, frustrating wait for an unknown future. Instead, he has decided to volunteer with our partner InterVolve, working to improve living conditions for the camp’s residents.

Mahmoud joined InterVolve’s team of volunteer carpenters. He had no previous experience, but was soon producing a wide range of furniture and items for the camp.

Using the skills he’s taught himself, Mahmoud now creates innovative, upcycled furniture and homeware, and custom gifts that tell a story. Mahmoud says that he aims use these creations to “send a message of love to all people”.

Watch the video below to find out more, and order your own unique products from Mahmoud’s website Giftstoria.

Order your own custom gifts from Mahmoud on the Giftstoria website or via Facebook.

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