SYDNEY, Australia -- Human rights groups accused Australia on Wednesday of deliberately ignoring the alleged abuse of asylum seekers being held at a remote Pacific island detention facility in a bid to deter future refugees from trying to reach the country by boat.

A scathing joint report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said detainees on the Pacific island nation of Nauru, where Australia sends asylum seekers, are routinely denied critical medical care, frequently attempt suicide and endure physical assaults by locals on the island.

"Australia's policy of exiling asylum seekers who arrive by boat is cruel in the extreme," Anna Neistat, senior director for research at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "Few other countries go to such lengths to deliberately inflict suffering on people seeking safety and freedom."

Australia's Department of Immigration and Border Protection criticized the rights groups for not consulting with the government while preparing the report.

"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."

The department did not respond to a request seeking details on what parts of the report it was refuting.

Australia refuses to accept any asylum seekers who attempt to reach its shores by boat. Instead, it pays Nauru and the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea to hold them -- often for years.

Reports of abuse, miserably hot and crowded living conditions, and frequent suicide attempts at the detention camps have plagued Australia for years; in April, an Iranian refugee on Nauru died after setting himself on fire. Human rights groups have long called on Australia to abandon its offshore detention policy, calling the practice a violation of the country's international human rights obligations.

Australia argues that the policy has saved lives by removing the incentive for migrants to attempt the dangerous and often deadly ocean crossing from Indonesia to Australia in rickety boats. Critics say the country has simply traded one evil for another.

Journalists have been almost entirely banned from Nauru in recent years. But researchers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch 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.

Since last year, asylum seekers held in the detention centre have been allowed to leave the camp and move about the island during the day -- but many say they are too afraid to do so.

Every refugee and asylum seeker interviewed by the researchers said that they or their family members had been intimidated, harassed or physically assaulted by locals, including being pelted with bottles and stones and robbed at knifepoint. Several women reported being sexually assaulted.