Employment Activating Social Assistance Schemes Not Working for Roma and Travellers

18 June 2007

Tara Bedard1

In recent years, the social assistance schemes of many European countries have evolved significantly. Many have moved from social welfare oriented schemes to activation oriented schemes. This shift implies a move from merely providing social aid recipients with some level of income to offering social assistance recipients a minimum level of income as well as a wider range of options including training, education, subsidised employment, work placement, language-learning skills, etc., in order to empower them to return to the labour market and foster their social inclusion.

This shift is widely acknowledged to be positive and necessary in order to actually achieve the social inclusion of marginalised groups such as Roma and Travellers.2 According to the European Anti-Poverty Network, the goal of activation measures is "social inclusion and professional mobility by empowering the claimants to improve their competencies and skills, physical and mental health, to establish social contacts, improve feeling of participation and citizenship"3 - essentially a move from strategies of help to those of self-help.

Importantly, "additional service to further social inclusion is emphasised, not obligations. Activation is an investment in human, social, psychological and cultural resources. The aim of activation is labour market integration but also social integration in a wider sense. The strategy is broad, taking the multi-complexity of problems into consideration and offering tailored intervention for individual needs and expectations. As such (social) activation can include excluded groups with the most serious problems, who are furthest away from the job market […]"4 (emphasis added).

It goes without saying that this is an incredibly ambitious policy shift. At the same time, concerns have been noted about the manner in which activation schemes are implemented. People working in the field have questioned the extent to which employment activation social assistance schemes have decreased unemployment levels and the number of unemployed persons, and they have even posited that levels of social exclusion and poverty have increased. It is claimed that most people are activated (read: forced) to participate in activation measures and programmes without subsequently being able to secure employment. Responsibility for continued unemployment is then placed on the shoulders of the social assistance recipient who was provided with the "necessary" assistance, and the cycle of prejudice and social exclusion continues.

The impact of this shift on Roma and Travellers is cause for special concern when one considers the high levels of unemployment amongst Romani and Traveller communities in Europe and the resulting widespread reliance of such groups on social assistance schemes. It was to explore the way in which social assistance schemes work with respect to Roma and Travellers as well as the access of Roma and Travellers to social assistance generally that lead the European Roma Rights Centre, in partnership with the Portuguese social research centre Númena Centro de Investigaçăo em Cięncias Sociais e Humanas, to undertake research in the Czech Republic, France and Portugal in 2006.5 A full-length report entitled "Social Inclusion Through Social Services: The Case of Roma and Travellers" containing the results of this research was published by the ERRC and Númena in March 2007 and presented at a conference in Lisbon.6 This article focuses on some of the results of this research in France and Portugal, where employment activation social assistance models have existed for several years.7

The Position of Roma and Travellers in France and Portugal

According to the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), in 2005 the rate of employment in France was 69.15%, while the French government listed a national unemployment rate of 9.1% in its National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2003-2005. The results of 2006 field research undertaken in Traveller communities around France indicated that the corresponding rates for the French Traveller community were 26.7% formal employment and 70.4% unemployment. Of those Travellers that indicated formal employment, 94% were engaged in part-time entrepreneurial work through small enterprises registered with the Chamber of Commerce. The level of unemployment dropped to 38.8% once part-time informal employment activities were accounted for.

In Portugal, the employment rate was 68.1% in 2003, while unemployment was 6.3%, up from 5% in 2002. Field research results from 2006 indicate rates of 15.6% formal employment and 84.4% unemployment amongst Portuguese Roma. The level of unemployment dropped to 44.2% when taking into account part-time informal employment activities.

The Social Assistance Schemes of France and Portugal

France's social income is called the Minimum Insertion Revenue (Revenue Minimum d'Insertion – "RMI"). In Portugal, the relevant social assistance scheme is called the Social Integration Income (Rendimento Social de Inserçăo – "RSI"). As the names of these programmes suggest, the RMI and RSI are intended to be conditional, temporary forms of income support for unemployed individuals who are not eligible for unemployment benefits, which should lead to labour market inclusion via associated activation measures offered to the recipient by the state.

Each programme specifies that RMI and RSI beneficiaries must enter and sign an Insertion Contract in which they undertake to search for employment through local unemployment offices, undergo training initiatives stipulated by social services, and possibly enter subsidised employment contracts, amongst other conditions. The progress of the recipient in achieving employment is to be checked at regular intervals (usually every three months), with the continued receipt of the minimum income support conditional upon a positive assessment by social service workers for those individuals who were unsuccessful in securing employment.


The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 25: (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

The United Nations' International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states:

Article 9: The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.

The Results of the Research

Both social assistance schemes are widely acknowledged to be important sources of income for Romani and Traveller communities in France and Portugal. Regarding access to social assistance, almost everyone interviewed in need of such received the relevant benefit; there were, however, problems noted with the administration of the benefits. Further, documentation undertaken by the ERRC and Númena during 2006 underscored a number of ways in which activation oriented measures are failing when it comes to achieving their overall goal of labour market activation by Romani and Traveller recipients.

The problems highlighted during discussions with social assistance recipients, social service workers, civil society organisations and government officials can be summarised in several categories. These related primarily to the quality of the activation measures offered, the approach of social service workers to assisting recipients, the narrow focus of the measures implemented and the model of activation/inclusion measures implemented. The remainder of this article will discuss in detail the problems revealed by the research.

Inadequate Quality of Activation Measures

Cornerstone to employment activation social assistance schemes are the associated "benefits" offered to social assistance recipients which are intended to aid people in re-entering labour markets. Such benefits often take the form of education and training opportunities, subsidised work contracts or assistance in job seeking at state-run employment offices. In Portugal, another measure linked to RSI receipt is mandatory school attendance by the children of RSI recipients.8

Tellingly, none of the Romani and Traveller RMI/RSI recipients interviewed in the course of the study had ever achieved regular employment as a result of insertion measures linked to RMI/ RSI. Nor had anyone been offered or entered into subsidised work contracts financed by the French government in order to integrate RMI recipients into the labour market. In Portugal, several individuals had been offered traineeships within the RSI programme wherein they worked for several months with a firm, but none had been hired on as regular employees at the end of the traineeship. These individuals were extremely frustrated with the RSI process and felt that they would never secure employment given the current level of effort by the government to assist them.

One difficulty with activation policies where Roma and Travellers are concerned relates to the conclusion of the Insertion Contracts themselves. The associated measures that aim to foster labour market activation are specified in individual Insertion Contracts, yet even the completion of these contracts with Roma and Travellers appeared to be problematic in France and Portugal. For example, in France, only 54.7% of the Travellers interviewed had signed Insertion Contracts that they were aware of; 45.3% did not have or did not know if they had Insertion Contracts.9 In Portugal, many Romani RSI recipients reported experiencing long waits between applying for and being granted RSIs. Some individuals had had applications pending for up to a year, and several had received no response.

Where Roma and Travellers did have Insertion Contracts, most noted that social service workers had never actually asked or required them to undertake any of the insertion measures contained therein. In France, only 16.7% of the Traveller RMI recipients interviewed had been sent for any sort of training or education activity as a condition of their Insertion Contracts. Fifty-nine percent of the persons interviewed in France stated that they had never been sent for any training or education initiative (of these individuals, it is interesting to note that 64% were women). An additional 24% stated that their Insertion Contracts did not specify any such measures because they had registered small enterprises with the Chamber of Commerce.10 None had been required to seek employment at local employment offices. In Portugal, many Romani RSI recipients indicated that they had not been required to undergo any form of training or seek employment through local employment offices.

Where insertion measures had been made available to RMI/RSI recipients, the quality of the measures provided Roma and Travellers by social services or employment officers were considered inadequate and unlikely to achieve their goal. In Portugal, there appeared to be institutional barriers for Roma in accessing most of the skills training offered: The criteria set for accessing most training opportunities included the completion of mandatory schooling, which many Roma have not. For almost all of the Roma and Travellers who had been offered any training initiatives, the training addressed only basic skills such as reading and writing.

The quality of this service was very low according to the interviewees, and most people were still illiterate though the training was long finished. Some French Travellers indicated that they appreciated the training offered but did not feel that the teachers had actually made efforts to teach the people (mostly Travellers and immigrants) that were in their classes.11 Further training programmes aimed at developing specific skills required for employment had not been offered to any of the French respondents. Several Roma in Portugal had been provided computer skills training although none had secured employment subsequently; several others had been waiting for extended periods for such training.

Most of the Roma and Travellers interviewed expressed frustration and a feeling of humiliation with this process. For this reason, basic reading and writing courses are very likely to fail, and even if they become literate, few individuals will ever actually succeed in securing employment with such qualifications. Most of the respondents felt that the training courses they had attended had been a waste of their time, as they were in any case, still without employment. The shortcomings of the insertion measures inherent in employment activation social assistance processes are magnified as a result of further failures of this system, which are detailed in the rest of this article.

Flawed Approach of Social Services to Assisting Recipients

In order for employment activation social assistance policies to be successful, social and employment service and other government actors must approach their responsibilities in a constructive manner intended to actually assist social assistance recipients. However, empirical research indicated that, in most cases, social service workers and other government actors often approached their work in exactly the opposite manner.

In Portugal, the approach encountered corresponded more to the workfare approach to social assistance of the United States, the aim of which is to reduce the costs of social assistance schemes by tightening the conditions of and controls over access to benefits. In France, the approach of social workers appeared to be that of ignorance; most Travellers were hardly present in the RMI process and no one appeared concerned by this. In Portugal, most social service workers interviewed during research expressed the opinion that most Roma stay home all day and do nothing; most also considered RSI recipients to be lazy. At the same time, paradoxically, most social service workers also believed that most Roma work illegally (i.e. while staying home all day) and make false claims for RSI. This belief was grounded in the fact that some Roma in Portugal earn money by selling goods in the street or through other visible informal activities, which fuelled the opinion of social workers that all Roma earn money in this manner. Almost all social service workers and all social security workers interviewed disparagingly referred to Roma who pick up their RSI payments in Mercedes. During interviews, social service workers spent a great deal of time focused on the need for tighter control over the allocation of RSI.

As a result, many social service workers, whose job was to assist RSI recipients through the insertion process and to help them re-enter the labour market, in fact spent a great deal of time making efforts to "discover" false claims to RSI with respect to Roma, while this appeared to be less of a concern with regard to non-Roma. This they accomplished through their subjective interpretation of "exterior signs of wealth",12 which social service workers are empowered to investigate and interpret during home visits that are apart of the RSI process. Persons exhibiting "exterior signs of wealth" face their social benefits being cut off completely or reduced without notice.

The belief that Roma exploit the system corresponds to widely held prejudices in Portugal and results in discrimination at the institutional level in the RSI process. Until social service workers stop focusing on proving their belief in the illicit behaviour of Romani RSI recipients to be true and devoting time to this end, they will not be able to effectively assist those same individuals through a process intended to foster their insertion in the labour market.

The specifics of the insertion process in France were somewhat different, but the end result was the same. In France, the address of a caravan site is not sufficient for most purposes and Travellers choosing to live in caravans must register their domicile elsewhere, most often with an association, in order to access RMI benefits. In order to do so, these individuals must pay a fee13 that non- Travellers do not.


The Revised European Social Charter states:

Article 12: The Right to Social Security

With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to social security, the Parties undertake:

  1. to establish or maintain a system of social security;
  2. to maintain the social security system at a satisfactory level at least equal to that necessary for the ratification of the European Code of Social Security;
  3. to endeavour to raise progressively the system of social security to a higher level;
  4. to take steps, by the conclusion of appropriate bilateral and multilateral agreements or by other means, and subject to the conditions laid down in such agreements, in order to ensure:
  1. equal treatment with their own nationals of the nationals of other Parties in respect of social security rights, including the retention of benefits arising out of social security legislation, whatever movements the persons protected may undertake between the territories of the Parties;
  2. the granting, maintenance and resumption of social security rights by such means as the accumulation of insurance or employment periods completed under the legislation of each of the Parties.

Article 13: The Right to Social and Medical Assistance

With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to social and medical assistance, the
Parties undertake:

  1. to ensure that any person who is without adequate resources and who is unable to secure such resources either by his own efforts or from other sources, in particular by benefits under a social security scheme, be granted adequate assistance, and, in case of sickness, the care necessitated by his condition;
  2. to ensure that persons receiving such assistance shall not, for that reason, suffer from a diminution of their political or social rights;
  3. to provide that everyone may receive by appropriate public or private services such advice and personal help as may be required to prevent, to remove, or to alleviate personal or family want;
  4. to apply the provisions referred to in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 of this article on an equal footing with their nationals to nationals of other Parties lawfully within their territories, in accordance with their obligations under the European Convention on Social and Medical Assistance, signed at Paris on 11 December 1953.
Article 14 – The Right to Benefit from Social Welfare Services

With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to benefit from social welfare services, the Parties undertake:

  1. to promote or provide services which, by using methods of social work, would contribute to the welfare and development of both individuals and groups in the community, and to their adjustment to the social environment;
  2. to encourage the participation of individuals and voluntary or other organisations in the establishment and maintenance of such services.

Article 30 – The Right to Protection against Poverty and Social Exclusion

With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion, the Parties undertake:

  1. to take measures within the framework of an overall and co-ordinated approach to promote the effective access of persons who live or risk living in a situation of social exclusion or poverty, as well as their families, to, in particular, employment, housing, training, education, culture and social and medical assistance;
  2. to review these measures with a view to their adaptation if necessary.

Representatives of associations and Travellers alike indicated that, once domiciled through an association, the association took over the administration of the RMI benefit on behalf of the individual. Effectively, this resulted in the complete removal of the Traveller concerned from the RMI process.

Insertion Contracts were sent from the Case of Family Allowances (CAF), which is responsible for the RMI programme, to the relevant association that then arranged that the Travellers concerned signed the agreement. As noted above, many Travellers interviewed were not even aware if they had signed an Insertion Contract because everything was done through the association and they merely signed when and where told. Many were not offered any activation measures that would result in their inclusion in the labour market. Social service workers seemed content with this situation – i.e., one in which Travellers were not present in the system – and did not appear to make many efforts to meet with Traveller RMI recipients and ensure that the RMI process was working for them.

Narrow Focus of the Measures Implemented

Another hindrance to the success of employment oriented social assistance schemes for Roma and Travellers is that the measures formulated and implemented only focus on the people receiving social assistance; corresponding effective measures targeting employers do not exist.

The measures associated with the RMI and RSI benefit in France and Portugal do include subsidised work contracts aiming to provide incentives for employers to hire RMI and RSI recipients. RMI and RSI recipients may also frequent employment offices to receive assistant in searching for jobs. However, merely offering such contracts and assisting with the job search process does not address widespread discrimination by employers against Roma and Travellers in gaining access to employment.

Employment office workers stated that employer reluctance contributed to their inability to place Roma in jobs advertised through their offices. Several went further to state that when considering applicants with similar qualifications, employers always choose the non-Romani candidate.

The RMI and RSI programmes of France and Portugal do not include any measures targeting employers aimed at reducing discrimination in (accessing) the labour market. Broader social policy in both countries is also lacking such measures. This structural omission appears to institutionally support the premise that Romani and Traveller, and indeed all, social assistance recipients bear the sole responsibility for their unemployed status. It ignores the presence of and denies the impacts of discriminatory practices by employers.

Employers and other relevant actors are not forced to shoulder their share of the responsibility. Employers are offered the "option" to hire individuals receiving social assistance at subsidised prices but are not required to ensure a discrimination free hiring process or work environment. Nor are they held accountable for discriminatory hiring practices. It is not the responsibility, or even within the purview, of social service or employment office workers to ensure employers meet these basic criteria for employment activation of excluded and marginalised groups such as Roma and Travellers. Indeed, it does not appear to be any government actor's responsibility to ensure that these basic conditions for labour market entry by marginalised and discriminated groups like Roma and Travellers are enforced. Whilst this has ramifications for all social assistance recipients, Roma and Travellers are very likely disproportionately impacted given the widespread racism and discrimination they experience across Europe.

Whose Model of Activation?

The final question surrounding employment activation social assistance schemes relates to the model of "social inclusion" and "employment" being promoted. As indicated above, the scope of the professional training offered within these schemes is quite limited and there is not much room for personal choice by the social assistance recipient. Most training offered is geared towards employment in an office setting, which may not be desirable for everyone. Nor do these options compliment the skill sets and other resources of many of the Romani and Traveller social assistance recipients interviewed.

Certainly, many Roma and Travellers indicated that they were not really interested in the employment opportunities made available as a result of the measures associated with their social assistance. This was particularly true in France, where such forms of employment would necessarily force Travellers to live in one place to "succeed" within the RMI scheme and result in their inability to live their chosen lifestyle. Similar sentiments were, however, expressed in Portugal, where Roma do not practise a travelling lifestyle.

Many people interviewed indicated that they would be interested in undergoing training and accreditation programmes associated with their traditional forms of employment, for example landscaping, but this was not an option under the current system. This form of training and accreditation would also be necessary in many cases as vocational trades are becoming increasingly regulated and persons without proper accreditation are not able to practice their trade legally, as is the case in France. One young man in Portugal was reportedly using his RSI benefit to pay for biblical studies to become a preacher until his social service worker threatened that his RSI would be cut if he did not attend a vocational training programme offered by a state-approved service provider. The young man (still unemployed at the time of research) was forced to abandon studies for his chosen profession; one that would likely have resulted in secure income.

The employment activation social assistance model must become more flexible and allow for personal choice and cultural adaptability in order to succeed for specific groups like Roma and Travellers.

The Final Result

The inherent problems of employment activation social assistance policy have resulted in exceedingly low achievement levels where Roma and Travellers are concerned. As demonstrated above, barriers to the effectiveness of employment activation social assistance schemes appear to be structural rather than merely the fault of the recipients as many people would suggest.

In both France and Portugal, Romani and Traveller individuals appear to be long-term dependent on social assistance schemes as a result of persistent exclusion from labour markets, discrimination and now the failure of employment activation social assistance schemes. In France, information made available online by the National CAF indicates an average length of dependency on RMI of 4.02 years in France.14 According to the responses of the Travellers interviewed by the ERRC, the average length of reliance on RMI by Travellers was 10.4 years. In Portugal, most interviewees did not answer questions related to their length of reliance on RSI. Of the 7 individuals that provided this information, 4 had received RSI support for more than 4 years. The vast majority of the remaining individuals had been intermittently on and off RSI and therefore did not indicate a specific period of reliance. ERRC and Númena researchers noted that the de facto situation was one of long-term reliance on RSI as income.

In the French government's 2003-2005 National Action Plan for Social Inclusion, the government noted some progress in the re-entry of RMI recipients into the labour market; namely, a 20% increase in 2001 and 5.2% in 2002. ERRC/ Númena research indicated a stark contrast with regard to Traveller RMI recipients. Of forty-two individuals that were receiving RMI, not a single one had re-entered (or entered) the labour market as a result of activation measures associated with their social assistance. In Portugal, none of the Roma interviewed during research had secured regular employment.


Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU sets out;

Article 34: Social security and social assistance

  1. The Union recognises and respects the entitlement to social security benefits and social services providing protection in cases such as maternity, illness, industrial accidents, dependency or old age, and in the case of loss of employment, in accordance with the rules laid down by Community law and national laws and practices.
  2. Everyone residing and moving legally within the European Union is entitled to social security benefits and social advantages in accordance with Community law and national laws and practices.
  3. In order to combat social exclusion and poverty, the Union recognises and respects the right to social and housing assistance so as to ensure a decent existence for all those who lack sufficient resources, in accordance with the rules laid down by Community law and national laws and practices.

The Way Forward

If employment activation social assistance schemes are to become successful for Roma and Travellers in Europe (to the extent possible given the current number of available jobs and the opportunities for growing labour markets), a major revision of the existing schemes is necessary, as is indicated above.

The quality and scope of activation measures associated with such social assistance schemes must be increased dramatically. In order to contribute effectively to their goal, associated measures must, at minimum:

  • Be individualised, taking into account the specific characteristics, skills and needs of the person;
  • Be relevant and flexible to the individual's wishes and skills;
  • Be free of institutional barriers for marginalised groups;
  • Be determined through partnership between social assistance recipients and social services at every stage; and
  • Be monitored by social service workers who are fully aware of their roles and responsibilities in the process and held to those duties by strong management and structures.

They must also be amended to include an equal focus on the duties of other parties responsible for the social exclusion of Roma and Travellers and their absence from labour markets, including employers (public and private), government actors, and social and employment workers.

Many Roma in Portugal live in conditions similar to those of the Vila Resende Romani settlement, outside Lisbon. A considerable increase in the effectiveness of social policy is of utmost urgency to foster real change for these communities.
Photo credit: Tara Bedard/ERRC

Activation measures must target these groups and also hold them responsible for creating an open and inclusive work environment. They must address factors of discrimination and exclusion in society through:

  • Empowering social and employment service workers to act in cases of discrimination by employers;
  • Making mandatory anti-discrimination and diversity training for all employers (public and private);
  • Designing and implementing strict standards for realising positive actions such as subsidised employment schemes and other positive measures to ensure Roma and Travellers also benefit from social serrvices; and
  • Enforcing anti-discrimination law standards.


  1. Tara Bedard is the ERRC Projects Manager.
  2. There are various distinct ethnic groups in France that comprise the group commonly referred to as Gens du Voyage (Travellers); such groups include Travellers, Yenish, Gypsies, Roma, Sinti, Kale and Manouch, amongst others. The term Traveller is used in this article to refer to members of all aforementioned groups.
  3. European Anti-Poverty Network. Can Activation Schemes Work for Social Inclusion? EAPN Criteria for “Good” Activation. November 2005. Available online at: EAPN.
  4. Ibid.
  5. This work was supported by the European Commission and the core donors of the ERRC. The author coordinated the research towards and took the lead in drafting the report on which this article is based. The author and Larry Olomoofe conducted the research towards the report in France. In Portugal, the research team included Monica Catarino-Ribeiro, José Falcăo, Edite Rosário and Rahul Kumar.
  6. The full report can be found in Czech, English, French and Portuguese on the ERRC website at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2737. For copies of the report, contact the ERRC at: office@errc.org.
  7. This type of social assistance model was only introduced in Czech Republic in January 2007 and research in this country therefore did not focus on this. However, various actors have expressed concern that the manner in which the Czech government introduced this shift, without any real adjustment measures, will lead to a situation similar to that experienced in Slovakia. For information on the move to activation assistance in Slovakia, see: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2537.
  8. The utility, impact and fairness of such a measure has been the subject of debate; this, however, was not the subject of the research and is not explored in this article as such.
  9. This, however, did not necessarily mean that these people had not signed Insertion Contracts. The privatisation of social service administration had created a number of problems in this area that contributed to a low knowledge of social assistance processes and mechanisms. For a detailed discussion of this situation, see the article by Larry Olomoofe entitled “Très Diffi cile: Problematic of Civic Associations’ Intervention in Human Rights Situations” on page 23 of this journal.
  10. People with small enterprises registered at the Chamber of Commerce were able to engage in various employment activities, such as trading goods in markets, and were required to report earnings every three months. At this time, their monthly RMI payment for the coming period was adjusted to refl ect their average earnings. This was called “differentiated RMI”, insofar as the RMI was considered a form of income supplement for those working but not earning enough to support themselves of their families.
  11. For example, ERRC interview with Ms M., a Traveller woman from Aubervilliers. November 2006.
  12. This is a broad category that is up to the individual interpretation of the social service worker. “Exterior signs of wealth” have included cars, televisions, radios, gold earnings and other family heirlooms that were most often received as gifts during wedding and other celebrations.
  13. This fee is paid to the association for the service provided because at the same time that the state approves such a system, it does not provide adequate funding to associations involved in the administration of social benefits.
  14. Figure estimated by the ERRC and calculated as the weighted average of duration of benefit, from the breakdown of all benefi ciaries by the starting year of the benefi t available at: CNAF.


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