Goodwill Ambassador Jolie visits detained children in Arizona

News Stories, 29 April 2004

© UNHCR/J.A.Ghedini
A teenage boy in the Southwest Key Program shows Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie a quilt he has just finished. He will be reunited with his family in late April.

PHOENIX, Arizona, April 29 (UNHCR) UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has visited detained asylum seekers at three facilities in the Arizona desert as part of her continuing efforts to give a voice to the tens of thousands of asylum seekers detained in the United States. Thousands of asylum seekers are detained every year in the US, including over 5,000 children per year.

During her visit to Arizona on Sunday, the Goodwill Ambassador visited the Southwest Key Program, a facility for unaccompanied children in Phoenix; the Florence Service Processing Center, a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) holding and processing facility for over 300 adult men; and a private corrections facility contracted to provide DHS with beds for adult women.

The UN refugee agency has long advocated against the detention of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. As the US and other industrialised countries have policies utilising detention programmes, however, UNHCR has often played a vital role in monitoring and ameliorating conditions of those persons who are nonetheless detained, particularly children.

In March 2003, responsibility for the care and placement of unaccompanied children in the US was transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the US Department for Health and Human Services from the immigration authorities of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (former-INS, which has since been incorporated into the DHS). UNHCR welcomed the transfer of custody from an enforcement agency to one that focuses on child welfare and has decades of experience working with resettled refugees.

Jolie heard many heartbreaking stories during her visits to the three facilities, but she was particularly moved by the plight of unaccompanied children trying not only to survive the often harrowing situations that brought them to the US, but also trying to weave their way through an extremely complicated immigration system.

"Many of these children have survived tragedy, so being separated from their families can only add to their suffering," she said. "Access to legal representation and a guardian to help them through this difficult immigration process is absolutely essential to protect them and ensure that their best interests are met."

Jolie was pleased with the progress that ORR has made in improving the conditions for shelter of unaccompanied children in a very short time. She noted with appreciation the positive example set by the collaboration between ORR and facilities such as the Southwest Key Program.

At Southwest Key, she visited older boys and girls in bicycle repair and sewing workshops, as well as young children working on arts and crafts projects. One nine-year-old boy who was making a photo frame from brown construction paper showed the Goodwill Ambassador a photo of his father, who is living in the US and who he hopes to be reunited with soon.

Another 12-year-old girl gave Jolie a tour of her room and dormitory area, both of which were basic but made to feel very much like a proper home with hand-drawn decorations, drawings and toys adorning the beds and dressers. Later that day, Jolie met the girl's mother at the detention facility in Florence. The two had not seen each other since two months ago, when they were caught at the border and detained in separate facilities. The girl's mother sobbed upon hearing that Jolie had met her daughter that morning and was relieved to hear that she was healthy and being well looked after by caring staff in a friendly environment.

The Goodwill Ambassador became interested in asylum seekers in detention, especially children, when she witnessed court proceedings for detained asylum seekers in Arlington, Virginia in November 2001. Last year, she was instrumental in building awareness and support for the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2003 (S.1129), a Congressional bill co-sponsored by US Senators Diane Feinstein and Sam Brownback. In addition to raising tremendous public support for the bill, Senators Arlen Specter and Hilary Clinton agreed to co-sponsor the bill during private meetings with Jolie. The bill will ensure that detained unaccompanied children will be treated properly and humanely while in custody and assigned legal counsel and guardians to assist them with immigration proceedings.

Since the transfer, UNHCR has been working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to provide even greater protection, assistance and support for unaccompanied children. In particular, all unaccompanied children in detention should have a guardian ad litem ["guardian at law" The person appointed by the court to look out for the best interests of the child during the course of legal proceedings] and legal counsel to help ensure they are protected and cared for during their detention and legal immigration proceedings.

At the end of her visit to Arizona, Jolie was enthusiastic about the cooperation. "I am excited that UNHCR is working with ORR on this initiative," she said. "These children are true survivors. I am awed by their spirit and inspired by their resilience. I hope they can find ways to work together to provide them with the care and assistance they deserve."




UNHCR country pages

Barbara Hendricks and UNHCR

Hendricks' activities for refugees since 1986.

Barbara Hendricks Biography

Read about Hendricks' life and career.

Muazzez Ersoy Biography

A Turkish singing delight.

George Dalaras Biography

A star among the pantheon of stars.


Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

George Dalaras and UNHCR

Read about Dalaras's long link with UNHCR.

Muazzez Ersoy and UNHCR

Learn about Muazzez Ersoy's links with UNHCR.

Refworld – Children

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

The Continuity Of Risk

A three-city study of Congolese women-at-risk resettled in the U.S.

Stateless in American Samoa: Mikhail Sebastian's Story

Mikhail Sebastian is a stateless man who has been living in the United States for more than a decade-and-a-half. In this video, he tells of the hardships he has faced and the importance of providing legal protections to stateless persons in the U.S.

Operational Guidance

Operational Guidance for the prevention of micronutrient deficiencies and malnutrition.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie joined UNHCR chief António Guterres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, where they met with boat people who have fled unrest in North Africa.

More than 40,000 people, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have crossed the Mediterranean on overcrowded boats and descended on the small island since the beginning of the year.

The UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador flew to Lampedusa from Malta, which has also been a destination for people fleeing North Africa by boat.

Angelina Jolie meets boat people in Malta, Lampedusa

Angelina Jolie returns to Iraq, urges support for the displaced

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to Iraq in July 2009 to offer support to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who remain displaced within their own country.

During her day-long visit to Baghdad, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited a makeshift settlement for internally displaced people in north-west Baghdad where she met families displaced from the district of Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad, and from the western suburbs of the capital.

Despite the difficulties in Iraq, Jolie said this was a moment of opportunity for Iraqis to rebuild their lives. "This is a moment where things seem to be improving on the ground, but Iraqis need a lot of support and help to rebuild their lives."

UNHCR estimates that 1.6 million Iraqis were internally displaced by a wave of sectarian warfare that erupted in February 2006 after the bombing of a mosque in the ancient city of Samarra. Almost 300,000 people have returned to their homes amid a general improvement in the security situation since mid-2008.

Angelina Jolie returns to Iraq, urges support for the displaced

Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie met with forcibly displaced people on April 5, 2010 during her first visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, called for steps to end the continued suffering of these victims of the Bosnian War after hearing their harrowing tales and seeing their grim living conditions.

Jolie was clearly moved by the spirit - and the ordeal - of the people she met and she pledged to highlight their case. Most of the people she talked to have been living in exile since the end of the 1992-1995 conflict. Jolie visited collective centres in the towns of Gorazde and Rogatica, where the inhabitants lack basic services such as running water.

The actress spent some time with a group of women who were raped or tortured during the war. Their tales left a deep impression on her. She also met a family of refugee returnees who were still waiting to move into their village home near the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad.

Angelina Jolie in Bosnia

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni
Play video

Greece: The Refugees' Grandmother in Idomeni

From her small house in Idomeni, Greek grandmother Panagiota Vasileiadou, 82, saw first-hand the bare need of refugees desperate for food to feed their children or clean water to shower and wash their clothes. As a daughter of ethnic Greek refugees herself - who left Turkey in a population exchange after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish war - she is now doing all she can to help the latest wave of refugees by giving out food and clothes.
Greece: Health risk to refugee children in IdomeniPlay video

Greece: Health risk to refugee children in Idomeni

Some 10,000 refugees and migrants remain camped out at an informal site at Greece's northern border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The makeshift home is also home to an estimated 4,000 children, the majority of whom are under the age of five. Doctors warn conditions in the camp are becoming dangerous for children.
Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotelPlay video

Syria: Homs war children find home in abandoned hotel

After five years of conflict that destroyed their spacious children's home in Wa'ar, dozens of orphaned and abandoned children had to relocate to a small former hotel in nearby Homs. The abandoned hotel has limited dormitories, no playgrounds or classroom.