Actress Angelina Jolie, goodwill ambassador for the United Nations’ refugee agency, was in Washington yesterday to announce the founding of the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, which will help provide pro bono legal aid for the more than 5,000 refugee children a year who arrive alone in the United States.
The actress, known for her roles in “Girl, Interrupted” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” said many refugee children are seeking asylum to escape the persecution, abuse or sex trafficking they have endured.
However, the children cannot hire lawyers to represent them as they navigate the complex legal system, Miss Jolie said during a National Press Club luncheon marking the event. Without an attorney’s assistance, they are likely to be denied legal protection and residency in the United States, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports.
“I think it is cruel” to let children undergo immigration hearings alone, Miss Jolie said.
She said hearings before the U.S. Department of Justice’s immigration courts or state juvenile courts are held in English, a language that most of the young refugees do not understand.
“It’s unethical not to listen to those children,” Miss Jolie said.
She said it is often humiliating and traumatizing for a child who was sexually trafficked to be asked by a judge to explain exhaustively what happened or for a child whose parents were slain in front of him to be asked to recall every detail.
Through training and mentoring programs, the center will provide tactical guidance in preparing cases and will assist lawyers representing unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.
The center is a partnership of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It is funded by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees through a $500,000 grant.
Miss Jolie was appointed goodwill ambassador in August 2001. For more than three years, she has traveled to Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Balkans and the Caucasus to assist the refugee agency in its work with displaced people and to raise awareness and support for refugees.
In October 2003, the U.N. Correspondents Association presented Miss Jolie with the Sergio Vieira de Mello Citizen of the World Award in recognition of her work.