In an exclusive Vogue interview, Angelina reflects on her two decades working with the United Nations refugee agency and discusses the adoption journey of three of her children: Maddox, Pax and Zahara.
Angelina has spent almost two decades working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), first as a goodwill ambassador and as of 2012, special envoy, in light of her dedication to the cause. “I found myself a student at their feet,” Jolie tells Vogue. “I have learned more from refugees about family, resilience, dignity and survival than I can express.”
So what does the role of UNHCR special envoy entail? In addition to bringing much-needed attention to major crises that result in mass population displacements, Angelina represents the agency and commissioner at a diplomatic level. “My work now involves fighting alongside my colleagues for refugees to have rights and protection, to resist forced returns, and to push for better learning opportunities,” she explains. “UNHCR is a protection agency. We help those who have fled war and persecution, who’ve had their rights violated.”
Ahead of World Refugee Day — an international day designated by the United Nations (UN) to honour refugees around the globe today, on June 20, — Vogue spoke to Angelina about her work with UNHCR and how it has transformed her perception of motherhood.
UNHCR’s raison d’être is to save lives, protect rights and build a better future for refugees. What is it about these causes that speak to you personally?
“I see all people as equal. I see the abuse and suffering and I cannot stand by. Around the world, people are fleeing gas attacks, rape, female genital mutilation, beatings, persecution, murder. They do not flee to improve their lives. They flee because they cannot survive otherwise.
“What I really want is to see an end to what forces people out of their homelands. I want to see prevention when we can, protection when needed and accountability when crimes are committed.”
According to UNHCR, the world now has a population of nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people—the highest on record. In your years working with UNHCR, you’ve witnessed the dramatic increase first hand. What have been the main causes?
“I see a lack of will to protect and defend basic human rights, and a lack of diplomacy and accountability. A lot of people profit from the chaos of broken, dependent countries and it sickens me. We also see leaders spread fear for political gain, and nationalism rising — anger at ‘the other’.
“But on the other hand, I also see amazing generosity towards refugees in many countries and extraordinary strength and resilience from refugees themselves. And it is not a hopeless picture. Just five conflicts account for two-thirds of all cross-border displacement — Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. Change the dynamic there, and we change the picture for global displacement.”
Before the pandemic, you were doing a lot of work in Venezuela and Bangladesh. Can you tell us about some of the things you witnessed there and what the situation is now?
“I saw people at their most human, who’ve been through unimaginable violence or hardship, and who are just trying to take care of their families. Any of us would do the same in their situation. Like all of us, they want to be safe, they want to have a home, and they want to be free.
“The realities for refugees or displaced people are extremely hard. They are often victims of rape and sexual abuse. They are struggling with the same kinds of illnesses you find in any community during peacetime, but without access to the healthcare you or I would be able to rely on.
“And then, refugees often live in tents in camps that are extremely exposed to the elements. Last month, refugees in Bangladesh were hit by a cyclone.”