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A joint report has accused Australia of ignoring claims of physical and sexual abuse of asylum-seekers detained offshore. Australia exiles asylum-seekers arriving by sea to two Pacific nations.
The scathing report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said Wednesday that detainees on the Pacific island of Nauru, where Australia sends asylum-seekers, are routinely denied critical medical care, frequently attempt suicide and are subjected to assaults by local people.
"Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom," Anna Neistat, Amnesty's senior researcher, said in a statement.
Australia has faced international criticism for its refusal to accept any asylum-seekers who attempt to reach its shores by boat. It pays Nauru and the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea to hold them - often for years.
Journalists have been virtually banned from Nauru in recent years. But the report's authors said they were able to enter the country last month, spending 12 days interviewing 84 refugees and asylum-seekers.
Those interviewed said they were suffering from severe anxiety, depression and short-term memory loss. Both adults and children told interviewers they wanted to kill themselves.
"People here don't have a real life. We are just surviving," an unnamed woman on Nauru told researchers. "We are dead souls in living bodies. We are just husks. We don't have any hope or motivation."
Abuse, inhumane conditions and frequent suicide attempts at the detention camps have been reported for years. But Australia argues its uncompromising policies deter would-be asylum-seekers from making the potentially deadly voyage by sea.
Since last year, asylum-seekers held in the detention center have been allowed to leave the camp during the day, but many say they are too afraid to do so as they are the target of assaults, rapes and general harassment by islanders.
Australian government denies allegations
Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection complained that the rights groups did not consult with officials before releasing its report.
While the numbers of asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia are small in comparison to Europe, the issue is highly politicized
"We would strongly encourage Amnesty International to contact the department before airing allegations of this kind," the department said in a statement. "The department strongly refutes many of the allegations in the report."
But the department did not respond to a request from the Associated Press seeking details on what specific allegations it was refuting. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has vowed not to get "misty-eyed" about the fate of people who attempt to reach Australian shores.
Some 442 asylum-seekers are being held in Nauru and another 854 on Manus Island, according to immigration department data ending June 30. But Papua New Guinea says it will close its Manus Island center after the country's Supreme Court found conditions were unconstitutional and illegal.
jar/kl (AP, AFP, Human Rights Watch/Amnesty International)