UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie launches centre for unaccompanied children

News Stories, 9 March 2005

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UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie speaks with William McCarren, Chair of the Speakers Committee at the National Press Club, at a luncheon to mark the founding of the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children.

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 9 (UNHCR) Children fleeing persecution and arriving alone in the United States will now have better access to free legal counsel, thanks to the new National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children in Washington, D.C.

The centre was launched on Tuesday by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie, who last year donated $500,000 to the centre and who has been advocating for more than two years on the issue of unaccompanied children seeking asylum who are detained in the US.

Speaking to reporters at the National Press Club on Tuesday, Jolie said, "The point of all this is, when children cross into this country alone and they're scared, we must hear them out before we make the choice to either allow them asylum in our country or send them away. It is unethical to not listen to these children. Because without legal representation we are sending children to court to represent themselves in a language that most of them don't understand. And expecting them to recall accounts so frightening and humiliating, they wouldn't want to tell anyone, let alone a room full of strangers."

Each year more than 5,000 children from around the world arrive in the US unaccompanied by adults. Many of these children are asylum seekers who fled armed conflict and human rights abuses in their homelands, including forced recruitment of child soldiers, forced prostitution and servitude, sexual slavery and exploitation, child labour, abuse of street children, child brides and female genital mutilation. Some children come to the US because they have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents or caregivers.

A number of these unaccompanied children are apprehended immediately at airports or land borders upon arrival in the US because they lack proper documentation. Others are apprehended after crossing the border illegally. Many are trafficked into the US to work in sweatshops or prostitution rings.

In 2004, over 6,000 children arrived alone in the US and were placed in immigration removal proceedings. These children often go through complex immigration court proceedings alone, without lawyers. After being apprehended, children are placed in the custody of the Division of Unaccompanied Children's Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the Department of Health and Human Services. They are held in shelter facilities around the US and ORR works to get them released to families. About 3,000 children are released every year. Major destination cities include New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston and Dallas.

The Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2005 offers the promise of systemic reform in the treatment of these children. Under this bill, there would be a greater emphasis on ensuring pro bono lawyers, and the children would be eligible for guardians. The law would also address remaining deficiencies in the immigration system's treatment of children by requiring special training for immigration judges, prosecutors and pro bono attorneys. The bill has been reintroduced this session and has a great deal of bi-partisan support.

The newly-launched National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children will support this bill by seeking lawyers willing to donate their time to help children access asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection. The centre is being implemented in partnership with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The key to the success of this centre is the commitment of large law firms throughout the US to provide pro bono services in their communities.

By Lilli Tnaib in Washington D.C., United States

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