The former president of Nauru has said he regrets signing a deal with Julia Gillard to establish offshore processing on his island almost seven years ago, which he said led to refugee deaths in the detention centre.
Sprent Dabwido is in Australia, having sought asylum himself, and is receiving treatment for terminal cancer. He told Ten’s the Project he had been given just days or weeks to live.
He has been critical of the current Nauruan government, led by president Baron Waqa and with great power wielded by justice minister David Adeang.
Dabwido said when he signed the deal with Australia’s then-prime minister Gillard in 2012, he believed it would help Australia and the refugees while bringing a much needed economic boost to Nauru.
“I regret my decision at that time,” he said. “In doing that we have turned our country upside down. I thought I was doing the right thing but deaths still occurred, not at the sea, but on my island.”
Dabwido said the experience for refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru had “become torture”, and while he might be happy to “eat fish and sit on the sand”, he acknowledged they had a “different idea of what home is”.
“If you keep denying that to them forever I think it becomes a torture.”
Dabwido told SBS last month the policy at the time he signed the agreement – which did not include every boat arrival going offshore and never resettling in Australia – had changed.
“It is time to end processing on Nauru,” he said. “It is hurting Nauru as much as it is hurting Australia, it has turned my island upside down.”
Dabwido is among a number of former politicians and high profile Nauruans dubbed the “Nauru 19”, so called for their involvement in a protest against a government crackdown on MPs in 2015.
The government sought to convict and jail protesters, including Dabwido, and the long-running saga has seen multiple court cases and extraordinary responses by the Nauruan government, including the operation of a blacklist.
In September, Australian judge Geoffrey Muecke ruled there was no prospect of a fair trial for the group and the government – and in particular its justice minister David Adeang – had acted in “a shameful affront to the rule of law”.
Muecke, who was installed as an independent judge specifically to hear the case, also found the government was running an unwritten blacklist and had “made it known to employers and businesses on the island that it wishes and expects that the ‘rioters’ be not offered paid employment on Nauru”.
Dabwido has previously accused the government of refusing to return his passport, and preventing him from seeking medical treatment for his cancer diagnosis.
The Nauruan government has denied the accusations.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s legal director, Katie Robertson, said Dabwido’s comments were a “damning indictment” of the Australian government’s refugee policy.
“Over recent months we’ve seen a powerful shift in public concern about the welfare of the innocent people Australia has held on Nauru and Manus for six long years,” she said.
“Politicians cannot ignore this. The women and men that remain trapped on the islands must be brought to Australia, and this shameful chapter in our history must be closed once and for all.”
In Wednesday’s interview Dabwido said the Australian money had been destructive to his nation. “Lives have been lost, corruption and greed, and it’s overtaken my island,” he said.
“I think I was being very naive. I thought we could, you know, quickly establish ourselves and put the money aside and … get the country back on its feet. But what it did was it did the opposite.”
As the number of asylum seekers and refugees on the island – each of whom prompts a payment to the Nauruan government from Australia – declines, the Nauruan government has sought to hold increasing amounts of control.
Members of the Nauruan government have attempted to block the medical transfers of critically ill asylum seekers and refugees to Australia, and the parliament recently passed laws which effectively negated Australia’s newly legislated medevac process.
Last year it accused Médecins Sans Frontières of conspiring against it, and barred the medical charity from the island. When MSF established a telehealth service to resume treatment for its patients – comprising both refugees and local Nauruans – the Nauruan government passed laws banning telehealth.
After several extensions, the Australian-contracted operators are due to hand over control to Nauru at the end of the month.
Dabwido called on Nauru to end the arrangement.
“Stop taking the money from Australia,” he said. “Stand on your own two feet and become a good member of the international community, stop bullying people, stop using people, that’s my message to the Nauru government.”