Angelina Jolie on Her UN Refugee Role

Hillary Mayell
National Geographic News
June 18, 2003
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"What was really shocking was that every individual person you meet will tell you that their immediate family was [affected]. Somebody's child was killed, somebody's husband. Someone was beaten."

So wrote Angelina Jolie during a visit to refugee camps in Ecuador last year. Jolie, an Oscar-winning actress for her role in Girl, Interrupted, and the iconic action adventure babe Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame, has the ultimate alternate identity. Since August 2001 she has been the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). During that time, she has visited UNHCR refugee operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Namibia, Tanzania, Kenya, Cambodia, Thailand, and Pakistan in addition to Ecuador.

On Friday, June 20, Jolie will launch World Refugee Day celebrations in Washington D.C. In an interview with National Geographic News, she talks about a role that is truly personal to her.

Q: How did you happen to become the UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador?

I started to travel and realized there was so much I was unaware of. There were many things I hadn't been taught in school and daily global events I was not hearing about in the news. So I wanted to understand. I believe in what the UN has always stood for—equality and the protection of human rights for all people. So I read many books. When I read about the 20 million people under the care of UNHCR I wanted to understand how in this day and age that many people could be displaced.

Q: What surprised you most in your first months as ambassador?

The extreme imbalance of wealth and resources in the world.

More than 35 million people in the world today have been forced to run for their lives, and are either temporarily or permanently exiled from their homes. Half of them are children. Roughly 20 million fall under the auspices of the UNHCR and are currently receiving assistance from the agency. Around 12 million live in refugee camps, fleeing persecution, armed conflict, murder, rape, and mutilation. The smaller camps of 200 to 300 people in many cases are essentially whole villages that have fled together. Larger camps can be the size of small cities.

Q: Can you describe what some of the camps are like?

Some of the camps have hundreds of thousand people in horrible living conditions. One of the biggest problems is food distribution. Food is distributed in the camps every two weeks, but sometimes due to funding levels, food rations are cut. In some camps people are living on rations that provide only 60 to 80 percent of their daily nutritional needs.

UNHCR camps provide refugees a safe haven, food, medical care, and primary school for the children. Funding levels and the political realities of hosting countries, however, can make living conditions extremely difficult. A recent outbreak of fighting in Liberia has forced Sierra Leonian refugees living in UNHCR camps close to Monrovia, the Liberian capitol, to flee the camps and go into hiding. Reports of violence against civilian populations, including refugees, are widespread. The children from the camps are hiding from both government and rebel forces to avoid being kidnapped and forced into becoming soldiers or sex slaves.

Tanzania is currently hosting 357,000 Burundian refugees, 80 percent of whom are women and children. More than 8,000 refugees have arrived from Burundi since January, many of them seriously malnourished. But a shortfall in funding has lead to cuts in food rations. Non-food items, like soap, blankets, and plastic sheeting to sleep under, fell by the wayside long ago. In addition, the Tanzanian government wants to force the refugees to return home, and so is doing its best to make living conditions at the camps intolerable by imposing curfews, restricting movement outside and between camps, and refusing travel permits even for medical emergencies.

Q: How are the children affected by life in the camps?

The trauma children face as a result of being uprooted from their homes, often very suddenly, is devastating, and affects the rest of their lives. The very young children still have dreams. But the young teens have very little hope. They are more realistic. There is nothing for them to do in the camps, and they seem defeated. It is very sad.

An estimated 20,000 children and 20,000 women have been displaced by the recent outbreak of fighting in the Ituri province of Eastern Congo. The UN is receiving reports of thousands of women and girls being brutally raped, mutilated, and killed. Many of the children reaching camps have seen their mothers, fathers, and siblings killed. Thousands of children, some younger than 10 years old, have been recruited by the various armed groups and forced to act as soldiers. The UN estimates that as many as a third of the 30,000 fighters in Congo are children. When funding gets tight, as it always is in Africa, the first item to be cut is trauma counseling for the children.

More Information on UNHCR:

UNHCR provides protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, refugees who have returned home but still need help in rebuilding their lives, local civilian communities which are directly affected by the movements of refugees and, perhaps most importantly, growing numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs). IDPs are people who have been forced to flee their homes, but have not crossed the border into another country. As the nature of war has changed in the last few decades, with more internal conflicts replacing interstate wars, the number of IDPs has increased significantly and they are now the second largest group of concern to UNHCR. The number of IDPs is estimated to be between 20-25 million worldwide, with major concentrations in Sudan, Angola, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bosnia-Herzegovina and countries of the former Soviet Union. UNHCR helps an estimated 5.3 million of these people.

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