Jolie first became personally aware of worldwide humanitarian crises while filming Tomb Raider in poverty-stricken and widely mined Cambodia. According to Jolie, "I discovered things about what's happening in the world... Cambodia was really eye opening for me." Deeply affected by these experiences, she eventually turned to UNHCR for more information on international trouble spots. In the following months she agreed to visit different refugee camps around the world to learn more about the situation and the conditions in the area.
In February, Jolie went on her first field visit, an 18-day mission to Sierra Leone and Tanzania; she later expressed how shocked she was by these first missions. She then flew to Cambodia in June for two weeks, mainly concentrating on the land mine situation there, and later in August for ten days visited refugee camps in Pakistan which primarily host Afghan refugees; responding to an international UNHCR emergency appeal she decided to donate $1 million for Afghan refugees. She insisted on covering all costs related to her missions and shared the same rudimentary working and living conditions as UNHCR field staff on all of her visits.
Impressed by her interest and devotion in the subject, UNHCR named her a Goodwill Ambassador on August 27, 2001 at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. During a press conference she explained her motives for joining the refugee agency: "We cannot close ourselves off to information and ignore the fact that millions of people are out there suffering. I honestly want to help. I don't believe I feel differently from other people. I think we all want justice and equality, a chance for a life with meaning. All of us would like to believe that if we were in a bad situation someone would help us."
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Jolie was sporadically criticized for her commitment with Afghan refugees; she even received three death threats.