(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Preying on disaster: How human trafficking has spiked in quake-shattered Nepal

    The year following two earthquakes that devastated Nepal saw a spike in desperate people falling into the clutches of human traffickers. Two years later, with the country’s infrastructure and economy still in ruins, NGOs say human trafficking is still on the rise.
    Nepal has long been a source of economic migrants, and the money they’ve sent home from Gulf countries and neighbouring India has helped to feed families and build homes. Almost a million of those houses were destroyed or damaged in the quakes of 25 April and 12 May 2015, which encouraged more people to migrate, some of whom have been trafficked into unpaid labour or sex slavery.
    Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission reported a 15 percent increase in the number interceptions of people “vulnerable” to human traffickers during the three months following the quakes.
    That trend shows no sign of slowing, according to the anti-trafficking NGO Maiti Nepal, as well as Indian border security officials. “We continue to see a rise in trafficking cases and in interceptions at the border,” said Shivani Chemjong of Maiti.
    The NGO stations people at border crossings with India and intervenes if women and children are suspected of being trafficked. Last year, Chemjong said, Maiti “intercepted” more than 5,700 “vulnerable girls”; in 2014 – the year before the quake – the figure was 2,900.
    The Sahastra Seema Bal, the Indian force guarding the 1,751-kilometre border, also reported an increase. In a statement last month, the SSB said officers intervened in the cases of 33 victims of human trafficking in 2014, compared to 336 in 2015 and 501 in 2016. And the SSB has found 180 cases of human trafficking in just the first three months of this year. 


    In a small workshop in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, about a dozen women between the ages of 14 and 20 sat at tables, diligently threading beads into jewellery. Each was recently rescued after being trafficked, and was now receiving support, including skills training, from a local NGO, Shakti Samuha, which was established and is run by survivors of trafficking.
    Shakti Samuha also provides trafficking victims with housing and psychological support, as well as tracking down their families and counselling them. Families often do not welcome trafficking victims home, especially if they have worked in the sex industry. For protection reasons, the NGO declined to reveal their identities or details of their experiences.
    The young women preferred instead to focus on the future.
    "I'd like to learn computer skills, and teach other girls after learning them myself,” said one.


    A young girl rests on a beam in her house in Sindhupalchok, Nepal, which is being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake
    Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN
    A young girl rests on a beam in her house in Sindhupalchok, which is being rebuilt after the 2015 earthquake
    More programmes like this are needed, according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2016 report. It notes that, in the aftermath of the 2015 quakes, NGOs and the government increased “services and access to vulnerable populations”, but “referral efforts remained ad hoc and inadequate”.

    Thwarted efforts

    The Nepalese government has taken measures to curb human trafficking as well, but they are limited in effect.
    Agencies that recruit overseas workers must be registered and based in Kathmandu. They may employ agents based in district capitals who are prohibited from charging recruits for their services. 
    In practice, though, there is little oversight. Advocates for trafficking victims say agents sometimes falsely promise women legitimate domestic work and men construction jobs overseas, mainly in India and Gulf states. 
    Once they are there, some women find themselves sold into sex slavery, and many are told they must work until they pay off unforeseen fees.
    “In many cases, the imposition of high fees facilitates forced labor, and recruitment agencies engage in fraudulent recruitment,” the US State Department report says.
    Nepali embassies in six Gulf nations provide emergency shelters for vulnerable women, including trafficking victims, but the report says they are “inadequate to support the high demand for assistance”. 


    A Nepal Police officer looks out from an anti-trafficking check post in Sundhupalchok
    Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN
    A Nepal Police officer looks out from an anti-trafficking check post in Sundhupalchok
    One way to try to curb trafficking is to restrict air travel out of the country. Nepal's Department of Foreign Employment mandates that all migrants undergo pre-departure training before receiving a stamp of approval from the Labour Ministry, without which they can be prevented from boarding flights.
    However, traffickers often avoid such restrictions by bringing people over the porous land border into India.
    An ornamented gateway marks the busy Nepalgunj-Rupaidiha border point, where 4,000 people from Nepal cross into India each day on foot, battery rickshaws, or horse-drawn carts, according to SSB officials.
    “If there is no proof of wrongdoing, we cannot detain vulnerable women travellers as it can look like harassment,” said one senior SSB officer who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to media.
    Once in India, they may be sold into slavery or put on flights to countries beyond.
    Nilambar Badal of Asian Forum, an NGO that works with returned migrants, explained how the traffickers are always one step ahead.
    “The [Nepalese] government has asked India to hold special screenings at the airports. So instead of flying out of Delhi or Mumbai, the girls fly from small airports like Lucknow or Amritsar,” he said. “From there, they can pretend to be on a trip to Sri Lanka, Singapore or Bangladesh, and onward to the Gulf.”
    Nimisha Jaiswal reported on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project
    (TOP PHOTO: Guransh Gurung of the NGO Shakti Samuha, which fights human trafficking, in the office in Chautara, Nepal CREDIT: Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN)
    Preying on disaster: How human trafficking has spiked in quake-shattered Nepal
  • Pellet guns out in deadly force in Kashmir, after court refuses ban

    A month after India’s home minister promised to consider replacing pellet guns with a less deadly form of crowd dispersal, the corridors of Srinagar’s biggest hospital are still lined with young men wearing sunglasses and eye patches.

    These are the latest casualties of demonstrations that have brought the summer capital of India’s restive state of Jammu and Kashmir to a standstill. The unrest was ignited by the killing by government forces in early July of Burhan Wani, a key militant leader in Muslim-majority Indian-administered Kashmir. At least two Indian security officers and more than 80 civilians have been killed and the toll is mounting almost by the day.

    Security forces fire lead pellets from pump-action shotguns at stone-throwing protesters, often at close range. Several people have been killed by the supposedly non-lethal pellet guns, while hundreds have been blinded and thousands more injured.

    In a 21 September ruling, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court declined to prohibit the use of pellet guns.


    Mehraj Bhat/IRIN
    Protesters gathered at the main hospital in Srinagar in August were injured by pellet guns fired by Indian security forces

    India’s use of the weapons has garnered widespread condemnation and Home Minister Rajnath Singh said during a mid-August visit that security forces could be issued with alternatives such as chili-filled grenades.

    At publication, the home ministry had not replied to requests for comment, but there is no evidence that the pellet guns will be taken out of action any time soon. A volunteer helping injured protestors at the hospital said up to two dozen people still show up every day with pellet wounds.

    “We are angry because our children are being injured, and if there is no dialogue, this situation will continue,” said the volunteer, who requested his name be withheld.

    That’s an increasingly common sentiment here. As the region ruptures with popular protest against heavy-handed Indian rule, there is a growing clamour for talks about who has the right to govern this rugged valley in the Himalayas. If dialogue fails – or fails even to take place – Kashmir is destined to remain contested, and half a million Indian soldiers will continue to fight insurgents and face off against protestors every few years.

    Unfortunately, the key players do not seem inclined to negotiate a way out of the 70-year cycle of conflict.

    Pakistan, which administers part of Kashmir, has a long history of backing militant groups against India. The two countries have fought two of their three major wars over control of the region. An attack by militants this month on an Indian army base that killed 19 soldiers has only heightened tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations, and negotiations seem as out of reach as they have ever been.

    Deadly deadlock

    Last month, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of pro-Kashmiri independence groups, refused to meet with a government delegation that had travelled to Srinagar from Delhi.

    Explaining why the APHC refused to meet the delegation – led by Singh, the home minister – Hurriyat spokesman Ghulam Muhammad Ganai said the government must first admit the basic fact that Kashmir is a disputed territory.

    "India is not ready to initiate dialogue and it is very adamant about Kashmir being an integral part [of its territory],” Ganai told IRIN. “It is also insisting that Pakistan vacate the territory [that India] calls Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.”

    There’s no chance that Pakistan will cede the area it governs to India, as both countries claim the territory in its entirety.


    Mehraj Bhat/IRIN
    A young man was shot by Indian security forces using pellet guns against protestors in July

    Leaders from the rival countries have been sparring on the international stage since the 18 September attack that killed Indian soldiers at a base in the town of Uri.

    In a speech at the UN General Assembly last week, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for an investigation into abuses and atrocities committed against civilians by Indian “occupation” forces, which he accused of repressing Kashmiris’ struggle for self-determination.

    SEE: India urged to repeal soldiers’ impunity

    Indian foreign minister Shushma Swaraj countered by saying Pakistan had “diverted money to train terrorist groups as militant proxies against its neighbours”.

    Gull Wani, a political science professor at Kashmir University, told IRIN that the “humanitarian issues of Kashmir” had slipped into the background since the Uri attack. “Even the separatists have become hawkish, and the only casualty is the people of Kashmir.”

    A region on edge

    As politicians trade barbs in New York, Delhi, and Islamabad, Srinagar simmers.

    In this state, where 70 percent of residents are Muslim and the remainder predominantly Hindu, last Friday’s prayers at Srinagar’s main mosque were suspended again for the 11th week in a row. The same day, another protester was shot and killed.

    Members of the Central Reserve Police Force told IRIN anonymously, as they were not authorised to speak to media, that they only use the guns as a last resort when one of their members is in serious danger of being injured by a mob.

    Protesters deny that security forces are taking such precautions, and those injured by pellets keep arriving at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital. Meanwhile, soldiers kitted-out in riot gear patrol the downtown where shops are shuttered.

    Curfews have been variously imposed and lifted since the unrest began. But business isn’t on hold simply because of the government’s emergency measures. The pro-independence Hurriyat coalition has also been orchestrating widespread “strikes”.

    The coalition releases a schedule at the beginning of every week, which has been negotiated with shopkeepers, telling residents when businesses will be allowed to open, usually for a couple hours at a time. There was excitement on Sunday, as stores in the city centre were finally allowed to come back to life all afternoon and evening.


    Nimisha Jaiswal/IRIN
    Dal Lake in Srinagar is usually packed with tourists in summer, but civil unrest has kept them away

    But that sense of normalcy is fleeting these days, and no ones knows when violence could erupt again. In the absence of meaningful peace negotiations, the only certainty seems to be that the conflict will continue as it has done for decades.

    “The people of Kashmir have become a football between India, Pakistan, Hurriyat, and the army,” said Ajam Khan, who owns a boat on Dal Lake, a now-deserted tourist attraction. “We want a solution now. We want this sacrifice to be worth something.”


    (TOP PHOTO: Women hurry past Indian security forces in Srinagar. CREDIT: Nimisha Jaiswal/IRINTIMELINE GRAPHIC: Anna Pujol-Mazzini. SOURCES: Human Rights Watch, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Telegraph, CNN, Times of India)

    Pellet guns out in deadly force in Kashmir, after court refuses ban
  • Welcome to India, a country with 18 million slaves

    Two years ago, a man claiming to be an employment agent approached the mother of a 19-year-old woman with an offer: her daughter could work in a New Delhi household and send money home to her impoverished family.

    The mother never received a rupee, and she didn’t see her daughter for two years, until she was freed two months ago after an intervention by the NGO, Chetanalaya.
    “They never gave me my money. They said the agent has run away with it,” said the young woman, who cannot be named as she is a victim of human trafficking.
    She finally realised she would never be paid, and managed to call her family who then got in touch with Chetanalaya. Representatives of the NGO contacted the family who was holding the woman, and they agreed to bring her to the police station where she was finally released. 
    The woman is still too traumatised to speak about her experience in detail, but her story is all too common.
    There are an estimated 18 million people enslaved in India, according to the annual Global Slavery Index, which was published last month by the Walk Free Foundation. That’s more than any other country and far outstrips China, which followed with about three million of the global total of 46 million people enslaved through “human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, forced or servile marriage or commercial sexual exploitation”.
    Authorities in India recognise the problem, and the Ministry of Women and Child Development has written a new human trafficking law. But some civil society groups say the draft legislation is too focused on sex trafficking and doesn’t go far enough to protect enslaved domestic workers or crack down on employment agencies that sell women into domestic work with very little or no pay.

    Not strict enough

    Chetanalaya has liberated more than 800 enslaved domestic workers over the past 15 years, but that’s just a drop in the bucket, according to legal officer Gaurav Kumar Tomar. He reckons that many of the approximately 800,000 women who cook, clean, and care for children in homes in New Delhi are working without pay.
    “I can guarantee that half of them are placed through these illegal agencies and trafficked,” he said. “They easily outnumber sex workers.” 
    The draft legislation refers to the trafficking of women into sexual slavery, but it doesn’t mention domestic workers as a specific category of trafficked persons. It has also been criticised for restating a law that makes the registration of placement agencies compulsory, without addressing the continued evasion despite the existing law. 
    In the case of the young woman who was rescued recently, for example, the agent disappeared after receiving an initial payment, and the family refused to pay her unless the agent returned. No one in the family has been charged, nor has the missing agent, and advocates say such cases very rarely result in criminal prosecutions.
    Agencies frequently change their names and telephone numbers to avoid receiving complaints from the girls and women they’ve placed, said Kalai Selvi, a regional coordinator with the National Domestic Workers Association.
    “The agent is given one lakh ($1,500) for the year, and if he sends the family 5,000 rupees ($75), they are happy,” said Selvi. “The child is basically sold to the owners.”

    Government response

    The draft law makes the registration of placement agencies compulsory.
    “We will be developing rules that monitor where agents are getting the workers from, where these workers are being placed,” said Silky Grewal, a senior consultant at the ministry. 
    While the legislation does not specifically refer to domestic workers, Grewal said they are already covered under the penal code, which refers to trafficking “for the purpose of servitude”.
    That doesn’t go far enough for Tomar, of Chetanalaya.
    “I have seen horrific cases where girls are enslaved for decades together, where they are not allowed to step out or speak to anyone else,” he said. “The new law must identify domestic workers to empower them.”
    Civil society groups are preparing to submit their recommendations to the Ministry of Women and Child Development. An updated version of the law will then be sent to other relevant ministries for their input, and the legislation is expected to be debated in parliament this year.
    (PHOTO: A woman in India sits below anti-slavery graffiti that reads, "No more will we tolerate atrocity. We will claim our rights." Grace Forrest/Walk Free Foundation)
    Welcome to India, a country with 18 million slaves
  • Government under fire as India burns

    India is burning.

    Well, large parts of it are burning. There have been more forest fires in the first four drought-stricken months of 2016 than in each of the entire previous three years, the Ministry of Environment said this week.
    A combination of high temperatures and extremely dry weather – conditions linked to the weather phenomenon El Niño – have turned India into a tinderbox.
    At least 20,667 forest fire incidents have already been recorded this year. There were 15,937 fires recorded in all of 2015, and 19,054 the year before that.

    "The fires have been the worst in recent history"

    Fires raging over the past three months have consumed almost 3,500 hectares of forest in the northeastern state of Uttarakhand. Sphere India, a coalition of humanitarian agencies, says at least six people have been killed from the fires in that state. 
    Along with weather conditions, some blame the government for failing to respond to the fires before it was too late.
    "The fires have been the worst in recent history, more so because the forest department was not concerned when they were starting out, but now they're too big to control," Praveen Kaushal, director of the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities, told IRIN by phone from the town of Dehradun in Uttarakhand.
    Officials from the Forestry Department did not answer phone calls.
    The searing temperatures and dry weather have also been blamed for fires in urban areas and villages. Last week, 100 homes were gutted in Kakinada, a town in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In the eastern state of Bihar, 66 people lost their lives in fires in six villages over the past fortnight.
    The Bihar State government has imposed a ban on cooking in villages between 9 am and 6 pm. Religious ceremonies using fire are also banned, and violators may be jailed.
    The heat is unlikely to ease up soon, as May is traditionally India’s hottest month. Temperatures have soared as high as 47.2 degrees Celsius over the past few weeks, and the government says the heat has killed more than 300 people, including 219 in southern Telangana State.
    The Central Water Commission reports that major reservoirs are 79 percent empty, and the government has posted armed guards at some to deter desperate farmers from taking water to try and save their dying crops.
    The government has been criticised for its response to the drought, which it said has affected about 330 million people in a third of the country’s districts.
    Last week, a group of more than 150 leading economists, activists and academics wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying: “The response of central and state administrations to looming drought is sadly listless, lacking in both urgency and compassion."
    The signatories noted the devastating effect of the drought on the rural poor.
    While conditions have become worse over the past few months, farmers in some parts of India have been dealing with drought for three years. Yet, the signatories said in the letter, the government has done little to implement the National Food Security Act, which would have provided more than 80 percent of families in poorer states with half their monthly cereal requirements.
    Years of drought and little help have driven some farmers to despair. This year, 338 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra State’s Marathwada region alone, according to the central government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department.
    For those who have been trying to coax a harvest out of the parched earth for three years, many are hoping the drought will end when the monsoon rains arrive in June, and douse the fires and fill the reservoirs too.

    Government under fire as India burns
  • After 60 years of Zika in Asia, why worry?

    Zika has been in Asia and the Pacific for at least 60 years, though its mostly mild symptoms have prompted little cause for concern. But with the World Health Organization declaring a global emergency after an outbreak in Brazil that's been linked to serious birth defects, some countries in the region are taking special precautions.

    Tonga has declared an epidemic, and the government of the Cook Islands has advised women to delay becoming pregnant. Japan, South Korea, Nepal and India have issued advisories to pregnant women against travelling to infected countries.

    South Korea has announced a fine of two million won (about $1,700) on doctors who fail to immediately report suspected cases, while Malaysia has asked travellers to the country to report to health centres if they have symptoms.

    Nepal is trying to get rid of any standing water where the Aedes mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, can easily breed, said Dr. Babu Ram Marasini, director of the disease control division at the Department of Health Services.

    “We carry out search and destroy campaigns, and request people to throw the water from external containers and dry them out for a few hours,” he said.

    India has set up a technical group to monitor the situation, posted warnings at international airports and has promised to ramp up community awareness to stop mosquito breeding.

    Although no cases of infection have ever been documented in India, it was in that country, back in 1953, where the first evidence emerged that Zika had jumped from animals to humans. In that study just six years after Zika was discovered in monkeys in Uganda, researchers from the National Institute of Virology, in the city of Pune, found that 33 out of 196 people surveyed had immunity to the virus.

    For the most part, symptoms have not been particularly serious, usually a rash and a fever, and little attention was paid to Zika for a long time after the study. But in 2007, Zika exploded in the tiny Pacific island of Yap, in the Federated States of Micronesia, where almost three quarters of its approximately 10,000 inhabitants tested positive.

    Six years later, Zika infected about 35,000 people in French Polynesia. It was there that researchers discovered the potential connection between the virus and Guillian-Barré syndrome, according to a 2014 article in Eurosurveillance, a scientific journal that focuses on communicable diseases. Guillian-Barré syndrome causes the immune system to attack the nervous system, leading to a weakening of the limbs and sometimes paralysis.

    It is unclear how Zika arrived in Brazil, but researcher published in a US Center for Disease Control journal theorised last year that it may have arrived with participants from Pacific countries at the World Canoeing Championships in Rio de Janeiro in August 2014.

    Zika is now spreading rapidly through the Americas after recently showing up first in Brazil, where there have been about 1.5 million cases. Preliminary research appears to show a link between Zika and Guillian-Barré syndrome as well as microcephaly, which can cause babies to be born with small heads and underdeveloped brains.

    Despite Zika's relatively benign history in Asia and the Pacific, there is risk that a stronger form of the virus may have emerged, and that it could spread throughout the region with much more severe consequences than previous outbreaks.

    "The strain in Brazil could be new because mutation rates in these viruses are high. Moist tropical climates, population explosion and international travel mean Asia is susceptible to Zika," said Dr. Shailendra Saxena, of the Indian Virological Society.

    He said that rapidly growing populations in many Asian countries make them vulnerable to an outbreak of Zika. As migration to cities increases, so do slums with poor sanitation and stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed.


    Is Zika a risk to Asia?
  • Fuel shortage threatens Nepal aid as winter comes

    Almost six months after Nepal was devastated by a massive earthquake, relief efforts are literally running on fumes. Tankers are unable to drive across the border from India. The country is running out of fuel. Will aid agencies be able to stock up remote, mountainous communities before they are cut off by the first winter snows?

    India blames violent protests in areas of Nepal’s frontier sparked by anger over a new constitution for blocking fuel convoys. Nepali officials accuse India of imposing an unofficial blockade. Political differences aside, the fuel shortage is hurting people, especially those high in the mountains who lost a great deal in the disaster.

    About 9,000 people were killed in the 25 April earthquake and another that followed on 12 May. Some 900,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. Many people still rely on humanitarian agencies for food and shelter, but the fuel shortage means supplies are not being delivered.

    “Our distribution to 224,000 people has practically ground to a halt,” said Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokeswoman for the country's main humanitarian provider, the World Food Programme.

    “You have more than 84,000 people in the affected areas that live high in the mountains,” she said. “This is a particularly critical time to reach them to provide them with food and shelter supplies, before the snow sets in.”

    Jaquemet estimated that these people would be cut off from the world in about three to four weeks, and said WFP was therefore prioritising its diesel reserves to target transport to these areas.

    Constitution problems

    More than 40 people in Nepal have died during protests against the new constitution, which was passed by parliament on 20 September. Many in the Madhesi and Tharu communities oppose the size and borders of seven new provinces created by the constitution, claiming they will now be under–represented in parliament.

    India has also voiced opposition to the new constitution and demanded that Nepal’s government address the concerns of the Madhesi community, which straddles the border. India fears that political unrest in Nepal could spill over into its territory, according to Happymon Jacob, a strategic studies professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

    “India does have legitimate concerns about the developments in Nepal,” he said. “Given the ethnic linkages between the two countries, socio-political developments in Nepal would have implications for neighbouring Indian states as well.”


    In statements to media and at demonstrations, Nepali protest leaders and politicians have blamed India for the fuel shortage.

    “The tankers are being stopped outside the border," Laxmi Prasad Dhakal, a Nepali home ministry spokesman, told IRIN.

    But Indian officials have denied allegations that it has imposed a blockade and instead blamed Nepal for its poor security.

    Dhakal, however, said his government could guarantee that trucks would have safe passage. "I assure you there won't be any law and order problem on our side," he said.

    According to Jacob, any insensitivity to its recovering neighbour now could cancel gains made during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal, and strengthen anti-India sentiment in the country.

    “By not reaching out to Nepal before the onset of winter, New Delhi would end up undoing the goodwill it created by carrying out massive rescue operations in the country during the recent earthquake,” said Jacob. “New Delhi's policies should not lead to another humanitarian disaster in Nepal.”

    Winter approaching

    The fuel shortage has hit Nepal at a critical time, as winter approaches.

    “I think it’s very unfortunate that the current crisis is taking place when the humanitarian efforts should be at the peak, to reach people at high altitudes at this time,” Jamie McGoldrick, the UN resident coordinator for Nepal, told IRIN.

    McGoldrick said the fuel shortage was threatening deliveries of “winterisation” supplies, including stoves, insulation material and clothing for those living high in the mountains.

    “A continued fuel shortage would lead to paralysis of the operations on land and air."

    Plan International, which is running disaster preparedness and risk reduction programmes in Nepal to compliment the relief effort, said it was also struggling to keep operations going as supplies were stranded at the border because of the fuel shortage.

    “Our suppliers are delayed. There are long queues of trucks at the border transporting relief material,” Paolo Lubrano, the organisation’s deputy emergency response manager, told IRIN. “If the crisis carries on, we will soon be compelled to suspend the response in the most remote areas.”

    Government services are also being affected by fuel rationing, said Dhakal, the foreign ministry spokesman. The government has allocated fuel for essential services including ambulances and hospitals, but the crisis has hit the health sector hard as trucks carrying fuel also transport medical supplies, which are now running out.

    “Things are getting worse and worse," Dhakal said, adding that it wouldn't be long before people would be dying in hospitals due to the lack of supplies.


    Race against time in remote Nepal

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