Return to Transcripts main page
Australia's Migrant Policy in the Spotlight; Russia Denies Striking Hospitals in Syria; Imagine a World. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired February 16, 2016 - 14:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN HOST (voice-over): Hello, everyone. Tonight on the program, a sick baby faces being sent to an island detention camp. Little
Asha's case putting a spotlight on Australia's controversial treatment of migrants. I speak with the president of that country's medical
Also: Russia denies any part in those attacks on Syrian hospitals. I ask the president of the International Rescue Committee if he believes
civilians are being deliberately targeted.
HOLMES: Good evening, everyone, welcome to the program. I'm Michael Holmes in Atlanta, sitting in for Christiane today.
Well, they call her Baby Asha, just 12 months old. This young girl, her identity obscured there, has become the human face of Australia's
She's in a Brisbane hospital right now, having been treated for severe burns. But doctors won't discharge her, fearing she'll be shipped back to
a controversial detention center on the Pacific Island nation of Nauru, a place they deem unsafe for the baby.
For days now, groups of supporters of those doctors have gathered outside Lady Cilento's Children's Hospital, where Asha and her Nepalese mother wait
to learn their fate. But it's anybody's guess at the moment what will happen.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says his government would not imperil the health or security of any individual. But even so, Baby Asha's case
symptomatic of a wider issue at hand.
HOLMES (voice-over): Australia says it's saving lives with its controversial immigration policy but it's long been a contentious issue in
the halls of power, on the streets and around the dinner tables in Australia.
After more and more asylum seekers started arriving on its shores, Tony Abbott's government reintroduced its toughest policy yet in 2013, that no
person arriving illegally by boat will get to stay in Australia.
Instead, they tow the boats back out to sea and process refugees and migrants on Pacific Island nations, essentially outsourcing refugee
detention. The government argues this policy stops smugglers by discouraging people from making dangerous boat journeys. And it's not
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can say one thing, Mr. Speaker. We will not abandon our commitment to keeping the high seas safe, to keeping our borders
secure, to ensuring that our policies have integrity and security.
HOLMES (voice-over): But the controversial starts has long drawn anger, from human rights organizations, who say conditions at these detention
centers violate international standards, which the government denies.
There's also criticism from Australians, who argue the rules are just too tough and so, too, the time it takes to process migrants. An average of
445 days, says the government; up to three years, say the critics.
The number of asylum seekers has dropped by a quarter since the policy was reinforced and the government says just one boat arrived in 2014. But at
the heart of this issue, not statistics, but people, an island away from their Australian dream.
HOLMES: So will Baby Asha and her mother be sent back to that island?
The president of Australia's medical association hopes not. Dr. Brian Owler joins me now from Sydney.
And thanks for doing so, Doctor. This one case, the case of Baby Asha, bringing a much broader issue, really, to a head and that is the
outsourcing, if you like, of refugee detention to another country -- warehousing, some have called it -- and more specifically the conditions in
those places of detention.
How bad, in your view, is it there?
DR. BRIAN OWLER, AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: Well, one of the problems that we have is a lack of transparency around what happens on both Manus
Island and in Nauru in terms of particularly the health care and access to health care that asylum seekers have.
Now we do have reports from the Human Rights Commission here in Australia, which has said categorically that it is unsafe for those children to be in
detention, particularly in places like Nauru. They are exposed to harm and this is going to do psychological --
OWLER: -- harm in the long term and those consequences are going to last right throughout their lifetime.
HOLMES: I can't think of another country that does this sort of thing, this outsourcing.
One of the more disturbing aspects of these facilities is perhaps that the government effectively gagged professionals, people who have worked there,
making public their concerns and indeed, many of them did have concerns. They basically made it illegal.
But they had concerns ranging from psychological harm, as you mentioned, to the rape of men and women and abuse of children, right?
OWLER: Absolutely. So the doctors that have been there, in particular, have been very concerned about some of the things that particularly
children have been exposed to, about the health care of asylum seekers, about what the Border Force Act has done has essentially meant that those
doctors and nurses face a two-year prison term if they are found to breach their contract by speaking out.
Now that is not an acceptable position. There have been some moves from the department to say, no, they won't be prosecuting anyone. But the
question remains the as to why that piece of legislation was needed in the first place.
I think the issue of Baby Asha is that the doctors and nurses that are looking after children in hospitals in Australia face an incredible ethical
dilemma. They cannot allow children to be discharged in an unsafe environment and, clearly, going into a detention facility, particularly in
a place like Nauru, is going to expose that child to harm.
And that's why doctors in Brisbane have actually said, no, we're not releasing this child until we're sure that they're going to be released
into a safe environment.
HOLMES: Have you spoken to the doctors in the last day or so, to get a sense of how determined they are to keep going?
They certainly have some public support.
OWLER: They have a lot of public support. I haven't spoken personally to the doctors involved. But we have had another case in Children's Hospital
in Melbourne a few months ago, a very similar situation, where doctors there were concerned about releasing a child back into a detention
So we need to make sure that these children are out of detention. We have about 70 children on Nauru at the present time and recently there was a
high court decision which will mean that another 80 children, including 37 babies, will be sent back from Australia to Nauru in the coming month or
HOLMES: Those babies, it should be pointed out, are many of them born in Australia, which complicates things a little bit more.
You mentioned this, the Australian Human Rights Commission finding that 95 percent of children who have been held on Nauru at risk for posttraumatic
And it's also -- the other major complaint is how long it takes to process a refugee in Nauru or in Manus, in Papua New Guinea, the other place. The
government says 445 days; some have been there for two, three years, though.
OWLER: Absolutely. And many of these people are essentially left in limbo. Now there's no doubt about the harms that children are experiencing
through detention. But I think anyone that's in detention for that amount of time, those are not pleasant places to be.
Their future is completely up in the air and many of them are genuine refugees that are escaping conflict and need a safe environment in which to
And they have come to Australia seeking asylum and Australia has a responsibility to look after those people, particularly to provide them the
level of health services and support that they need, whether it's on mainland Australia or whether it's in an offshore facility as well.
HOLMES: Now of course, the government says, get in line, join the queue, go through the process that exists. Their argument is that the policy is
to dissuade people smugglers, who bring them in via sea. And that seems to work. The number of boat refugees has fallen.
And also, the policy does have significant, although it must be said, far from unanimous public support.
What obstacles do those aspects present to the people who are against this policy
OWLER: Well, that's the argument. And the government has argued all along that it's about trying to stop deaths at sea. We do know that people,
probably over a thousand people, drowned trying to reach Australia by boat. And the policy has certainly reduced the number of boat arrivals.
But when you have children that are being subject to detention in an offshore facility that is clearly unsafe, you've got to question whether
that policy of doing harm to those children under these sorts of circumstances is the right thing.
I think we need to get better and smarter at working with our neighbors and trying to stop -- look at other ways of stopping the boat arrivals. But it
is a very difficult policy dilemma and their arguments are, the why -- the issue for us particularly, as the Australian Medical Association, is to
make sure that the health care of asylum seekers and particularly those children --
OWLER: -- is adequate and that we get children out of detention facilities.
HOLMES: President of Australia's medical association, Dr. Brian Owler, thanks for joining us this morning. Appreciate it.
OWLER: It's a pleasure.
HOLMES: After a break, a different location but a sadly familiar theme, the plight of refugees. Head of the International Rescue Committee David
Miliband is going to join me for a frank talk about Syria's much-needed cease-fire and aid deliveries. That's coming up next.
HOLMES: Welcome back to the program, everyone.
Pictures of Syria's starving children were beamed around the world last month. And tonight they have been given another slim hope. The U.N.
reporting it will be allowed into seven besieged areas of the country in the coming days.
It is a small albeit vital token in Syria's brutal war. Assad's army continues its assault on the north of the country today, backed by those
Russian airstrikes. This as both governments were accused of attacks that hit four hospitals and a school in Northern Syria yesterday. They deny
Joining me now from New York is David Miliband, the head of the International Rescue Committee.
Thanks for being with us, sir.
Do you believe this week's attacks we saw on those hospitals, some of which your groups support, were a case of deliberately being targeted?
DAVID MILIBAND, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: Just to be clear, when you say that we support, we provide the health facilities, not that we support
the attacks, obviously. We're a humanitarian agency with 200 staff right across Syria.
And there's no question in my mind that the Russian-backed campaign of the Assad government is hitting civilian facilities without any regard for the
civilians inside. And it's also the case that communities that are known to have significant civilian health and other facilities are also being
I think that it is fair to say that the war inside Syria is a war without law. And I'm sad to say that two of the health facilities that we support,
through pharmaceuticals and other support, were hit yesterday and obviously have been closed. And other health facilities we've had to close because
of the danger to staff.
HOLMES: At a time when they are most needed, of course. We mentioned earlier, word coming through that the Syrians might let some aid through to
places like Deir ez-Zor, Madaya, which has become well known.
But when it comes to the broader, quote-unquote, "cessation of hostilities," the Russians say they're going to continue bombing what they
consider to be terrorists, which, of course, in reality, can mean the so- called moderates supported by the U.S. and Europe.
So at the end of the day, do you think it will actually happen in any meaningful way?
MILIBAND: Well, you're absolutely right to say that the news from the U.N. today offers slim hope in the context of an utterly brutal struggle. We
had two kids last week who, I'm afraid, died of malnutrition and cold. We weren't able to get to them in time. And the conditions are absolutely
The test for the seven areas that you have reported on is that the aid actually reaches there because, on Friday of last week, we were told that
aid would be arriving within 24 hours. I'm afraid what arrived within 24 hours were further bombing raids. And the impotence that's felt by the
humanitarian workers is --
MILIBAND: -- very, very real. We're out there, in the front line, trying to deliver services but face a political situation, which, frankly, is
worse than gridlock. It's people talking past each other with the situation on the ground, weekly and monthly getting worse, despite the
passage of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
And it's about whether some parties are genuine or being disingenuous. Your organization put out a news release today, saying that this war is
mocked by an utter contempt for civilian life and flagrant discard for humanitarian law. I'm curious if you think the Russians, in addition, of
course, to the regime forces, are targeting civilians?
I know that you said there's a randomness to the bombings but that's equally as dangerous. I mean, I've seen evidence of cluster bombs being
used in buildup areas.
That's targeting civilians, surely?
MILIBAND: I think that the right thing to say is to back what the French government said. You don't have to take it from me; you can take it from
the French government, which is that war crimes could have been committed.
That's obviously an extremely serious thing for a permanent member of the Security Council to say. They have access to intelligence and other data
that obviously we, as a humanitarian agency, don't have access to.
But you're absolutely right to say that the random dropping of bombs -- we know that barrel bombs have been dropped by the Assad regime over the last
few years. We know that chemical weapons have been used. That randomness is itself a breach of international humanitarian law.
What we've seen in the loss of hospital facilities, I'm afraid, isn't happening for the first time this week, although it's getting some coverage
now. There is a daily struggle, a daily danger to health workers.
And for it to be a campaign that's backed by a permanent member of the Security Council -- after all, Russia supported U.N. Security Council
resolutions that called for unhindered humanitarian aid, that called for the cessation of barrel bombings -- obviously threatens the very integrity
of the international legal system itself or the international political system itself.
HOLMES: Mr. Miliband, the Russians also agreed to Minsk and then we saw the violence there in Ukraine continue.
Do you believe them?
MILIBAND: I think that from, my point of view -- obviously, I've got a background in international politics, international government -- and the
truth that I'm afraid is a reality and evident every day is that what one person sees as a civilian, another person describes as a terrorist and you
end up in a war of words, at a political level.
And a war with dire consequences for, frankly, completely innocent civilians at the other level. And I think it's very, very important that
the demand for accountability, the demand that nations adhere not just to international humanitarian law but to the resolutions they're passing
continues to be made loudly.
My fear is that, over time, over five years of war, the atrocities that have gone on have dulled the senses to the seriousness of the situation
inside Syria. It's now often described as a European refugee crisis and, in many ways, there is a crisis in Europe. But the crisis emanates from
inside Syria, where 17 million people remain in danger.
HOLMES: You mentioned that, the European aspect of this. When it comes to the Russians, we have heard some veteran politicians very vocal when it
comes to their tactics in support of Bashar al-Assad.
Senator John McCain saying a pivotal part of Russia's strategy was, in his words, "to exacerbate the refugee crisis," to use it as weapon to undermine
the European project, those concerns echoed by other senior officials in Europe.
Do you think that's part of the Russian strategy?
MILIBAND: I think that from the Russian point of view, the European Union, the European construction, which goes beyond the nation states to share
power between 28 countries, has always seemed something in the job with their view of international relations.
The respect that the European Union has sought from Russia has not been reciprocated. Russia insists on acting on an international basis, working
between nations, not working with the E.U. as an institution.
And so I think the truth is that the Russian campaign inside Syria was not started with the aim of causing trouble in the European Union and I
wouldn't agree with that. But I think it is the case that the problems that exist now within Europe are not something that are in the forefront of
the Russian imagination, of the Russian image. Their drive is for leverage inside Syria.
And the fact is that, since September, their aerial campaign has given them leverage. And they're now determined to use it for political ends.
Obviously, from my point of view, as someone leading a humanitarian organization, I've got to keep coming back to the fact that the longer the
humanitarian crisis grows, the greater the political instability that will be caused.
And, frankly, every time President Assad drops a barrel bomb, he provides a recruiting sergeant for ISIS. And that's the daily reality that we see on
HOLMES: Or some would argue, when Russians drop bombs, too. You've mentioned the idea of the political aspect of this.
What chance a political settlement now, especially given regime advances on the battlefield --
HOLMES: -- Aleppo and so on, with Russia's help?
If the battlefield changes in Assad's favor, as it is at the moment, in terms of territorial gains, the incentive to negotiate surely lessens.
Do you see that as a conscious tactic?
MILIBAND: I think you're absolutely right. You used the word incentive. And where there were incentives for the Assad regime to negotiate -- people
point to 2012, people point to some of the difficulties they were having in the middle of 2015 -- there's little incentive for compromise now.
And that's the most worrying thing, that this war without law is becoming a war without end with neither of the many sides to the conflict seeing any
incentive to compromise.
And frankly the opportunities for compromise, the chances for reconciliation daily receding, because of the scale of the bloodshed.
There was a report last week that the figure that's been widely quoted of 250,000 dead over the last five years is actually half the true figure,
that over half a million people have been killed. We know there are 4.5 million refugees, 7 million displaced within the country, 80 percent of the
lights gone out across Syria.
This is a country that has imploded under the weight of the Assad regime's campaign against its own people. And I think that's something that needs
to be a concern, not just for humanitarians but for politicians, too.
HOLMES: And when it comes to Aleppo, a place that is now almost surrounded by Assad and other forces, do you fear another exodus of displaced persons
there, who will join that flood of refugees?
There's a lot of civilians still in Aleppo.
MILIBAND: Well, I can report to you not just that there's a danger of further civilian exodus but the civilian exodus is happening. I've got the
figure of 70,000 people who have left the city over the last 10 days; that's according to my own people on the ground. There are probably
300,000 people left inside Aleppo.
Frankly, if it was you or I inside Aleppo, we would be trying to get out. And in Berlin on Friday, I met some people who were refugees from Aleppo.
They were in touch with their relatives who are still inside the city.
And it's a daily battle for survival, without electricity, without health care, without the kind of support that's necessary. And, frankly, the
prospects are only getting worse. And that's why I think that international concern about Aleppo has to be turned to international action
HOLMES: You are a former politician. You've got a lot of political experience. You know, when I look at the landscape there, you've got
Bashar al-Assad and you've got Russia, you've got Iran, you've got the Kurds, you've got Turkey, you've got the U.S., you've got Europe. You've
also now got Saudi Arabia, sticking its nose in.
How on Earth do you resolve this and put Humpty back together again?
MILIBAND: Well, I think that you're right to be extremely skeptical of any glib answers on this. But the fundamental point, which is that, without
the U.S. and Russia at the table and without Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table, there cannot be a solution.
It seems to me to be very important indeed. I think that what's significant also is that the position of the neighboring states, Lebanon
and Jordan, as well as Turkey, which you mentioned, needs to be taken into account.
This crisis is not being kept within the boundaries of Syria. It's destabilized the Middle East and, frankly, destabilizing Europe as well.
And so although it makes it more complicated to have more players at the table, they need to be there because they've all got an interest in this.
The tragedy is that the people without a voice at the table are the Syrian civilians, who are facing a choice between ISIS on the one hand and Assad
on the other and many of them don't want either. And that seems to me to be where international diplomacy has got to play a role, a role that it's
been sadly wanting in over the last five years.
HOLMES: As we saw it quite today, the people without a voice are the ones without a gun. David Miliband, we've got to leave it there, head of the
International Refugee Committee. Our thanks to you for coming in today.
MILIBAND: Thank you so much.
HOLMES: Well, as Saudi Arabia and Russia are at least by proxy on opposing sides in Syria, perhaps some good news as they find a common ground.
No, hell has not frozen over. Their oil production might have. Well, it might, anyway. The two countries have agreed to freeze oil output to halt
sliding prices, apparently around $30 a barrel.
But there is a catch: they'll only do it as long as other nations follow suit, which is a lot easier said than done.
While oil pumps may be staying still, next, we imagine a world with cancer on the run. Revolutionary sides offering the world a new hope, after this.
HOLMES: Finally tonight, we imagine a world glimpsing the future of medicine with a staggering success in the fight against cancer, it would
A new treatment for blood cancers using modified cells has given a reprieve to otherwise terminal patients. In one study, patients were given just
months to live before this trial. By the end of it, more than 90 percent entered complete remission, seeing their symptoms vanish.
Now this incredible achievement was due to treatment with T cells, where immunity cells are removed from the body, altered with molecules that
target cancer and then reintroduced to the patient. Now with their new oomph, the cells are able to weaken the defense of cancer cells, making
them vulnerable to the body's own immune system.
This rather good news was announced by lead scientist Professor Stanley Riddell at a Washington conference.
Now doctors are cautiously optimistic about this new immunotherapy. They do warn that the T cell therapy may not work on all cancers in all stages
the same way and we should also say this work has not been published or peer reviewed.
But it could potentially be a sign of a brave new world of treatment, a big step in the fight against cancer.
That is our program tonight. And remember, you can now also listen to our podcast. You can see us online at amanpour.com and follow me on Twitter
@HolmesCNN. Thanks for watching. Goodbye from Atlanta.