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Nauru's Former President Admits Detention Camps Amounted To 'Torture'

Australia's agreement with Nauru to detain refugees was a "deal with the devil", the island's former president has claimed, in an extraordinary deathbed interview with The Project.

Sprent Dabwido, president of the tiny island nation at the time of then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard's 2012 deal to send asylum seekers to Nauru, has admitted that he regrets the decision and said that his country should tear up the agreement.

"I thought I was helping Australia, I thought I was helping the refugees themselves," he told The Project's Hamish Macdonald, in an interview on Wednesday night.

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The former president said he has terminal cancer, and claims he has just days to live. In what he said would be his final ever interview, he admitted the refugee arrangement had been a failure.

"I regret my decision at that time... we have turned our country upside down," he said.

"Deaths still occurred. Not at the sea but on my island."

The Nauru detention centre was opened in 2001 by the Howard government, but closed in 2008 by PM Kevin Rudd. Gillard reopened the centre in 2012, to house a large number of asylum seekers who had begun travelling to Australia by boat.

Refugees Have Now Been Kept On Manus Island And Nauru For Five Years

Women, children and families were generally taken to Nauru, while men were taken to the Manus Island detention facility in Papua New Guinea. At least six refugees and asylum seekers are thought to have died on Nauru, including several by suicide -- including one man who set himself on fire while United Nations officials were visiting the island in 2016.

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Speaking to The Project, Dabwido admitted failings with the detention centre.

"Eventually it becomes torture when you don’t have a future," he said.

"If you keep denying that to them forever, I think it becomes a torture."

He said he did not have hesitations when signing the agreement with Australia in 2012, but now regrets his decision.

"I think the deal on the table was done by the devil, it is a deal with the devil," Dabwido said.

"The Nauru government should find a better way than living on these people’s blood."

Just months after the Nauru centre was recommissioned in 2012, an Amnesty International report described the facility as "a human rights catastrophe", criticising the "unlawful detention and inhumane conditions" inherent in the federal government's policy of offshore processing and indefinite detention.

"[Amnesty] maintains that the transfer of asylum seekers from Australia to Nauru contravenes international law as it acts as a punishment for seeking asylum by boat," the 2012 report from the island stated.

The organisation released a similar report in 2016 which documented deteriorating mental health, discrimination, violent attacks -- including those of a sexual nature -- inadequate medical care and harassment.

The facility remains open today, but it is classed as an "open centre" with officials maintaining that refugees allowed to come and go as they please.

The Nibok refugee settlement on Nauru. Photo: AP

Following The Project's report, Amnesty International's Refugee Adviser Dr Graham Thom said the organisation stood by its previous commentary.

“Amnesty International has long held that the conditions on Nauru amount to torture, designed to inflict suffering for a specific purpose, to stop some of the world’s most vulnerable people from trying to find safety in Australia," Thom said.

"The truth about the situation in Nauru is again being exposed, this time by those closest to implementing the policy itself."

He agreed the torture "has to end". 

"It never was and never will be an appropriate place for vulnerable people to come to Australia seeking safety from persecution," he said.

"Australia must immediately bring the refugees and people seeking asylum on Manus and Nauru to safety in Australia."

A government spokesperson defended its regional processing arrangements as a "critical component" of its border protection policies, and said Australia works closely with Nauru to ensure "appropriate services", including health and welfare services, are provided to refugees and non-refugees alike.

There were less than five men in detention on Nauru as of February 2019, according to Home Affairs, with the government highlighting in recent times that it has removed all children from the island.