By Matt Siegel
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is ignoring the inhumane treatment of refugees held on the South Pacific island of Nauru as a means of deterring others from attempting the journey to Australia, two human rights groups said on Wednesday.
Under Canberra's hard-line immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach Australia by boat are sent to a camp on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea, or one in Nauru, which have drawn criticism for their harsh conditions and reports of abuse.
Nauru, which charges foreign journalists A$8,000 ($6,014.40) for a visa application and restricts access to social networking sites such as Facebook, this year experienced a series of suicides and incidents of detainees hurting themselves in protests over their treatment.
Despite its reputation for secrecy, Nauru in July allowed one researcher each from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to enter for 12 days.
Their joint report based on interviews with 84 refugees and asylum seekers from countries including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as service providers at the Australian-funded facility, alleges that Canberra could not conceivably be unaware of the centre's shortcomings.
"The Australian government's failure to address serious abuses appears to be a deliberate policy to deter further asylum seekers from arriving in the country by boat," Human Rights Watch said in a statement accompanying the report.
Successive Australian governments have supported the policy, which they say is needed to stop people drowning at sea during dangerous boat journeys, which usually begin in Indonesia.
A spokeswoman for Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it had not been consulted by Amnesty International regarding the report. She could not confirm if Human Rights Watch had attempted to contact the department.
"The department therefore has had no opportunity to inform itself of these claims and would strongly encourage Amnesty International to contact the department before airing allegations of this kind," she told Reuters on Tuesday.
Interviewees described "prison-like" conditions, inadequate medical care, as well as physical and sexual assaults by residents of the area, said Amnesty senior director for research Anna Neistat, who was one of the two researchers.
Broadspectrum, which runs the facility, and International Health and Medical Services, the main medical service provider, rejected the allegations when asked for comment, the groups said.
(Reporting by Matt Siegel; Editing by Robert Birsel)