Thousands of children fleeing persecution around the world and arriving alone in the United States will now have better access to free legal counsel, thanks to a new national centre launched by United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie.
“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,” said the film star, a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who donated $500,000 to the centre.
“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,” she added.
The National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, in Washington, is being run in partnership with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The key to its success is the commitment of large law firms throughout the US to provide pro bono services in their communities.
Every year more than 5,000 children from around the world arrive in the US unaccompanied. Many are asylum seekers who fled armed conflict and human rights abuses in their homelands, including forced recruitment as child soldiers, forced prostitution and servitude, sexual slavery and exploitation, child labour, abuse of street children, child brides and female genital mutilation.
A number of them are apprehended immediately at airports or land borders as they lack proper documentation. Others are detained after crossing the border illegally. Many are trafficked into the US to work in sweatshops or prostitution rings.
They often go through complex immigration court proceedings alone, without lawyers. The Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection Act of 2005 offers systemic reform in the treatment of these children, with greater emphasis on ensuring pro bono lawyers, and the centre will support the bill by seeking lawyers willing to donate their time to help children access asylum and other forms of humanitarian protection.