Nagad Daoud Abdallah, right, and Majdah Ishag, both from Sudan, sit on a bed in Ishag’s room at a hotel turned into a shelter for refugees in Batam, an island in northwestern Indonesia, May 16. Both have been at the community housing for eight years while waiting for resettlement in a third country. AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

TANJUNGPINANG, Indonesia—Morwan Mohammad walks down an old hotel corridor on Batam Island in northwestern Indonesia before entering a 64-square-foot room that has been home to him and his growing family for the past eight years.

Mohammad, who fled war in Sudan, is one of hundreds of refugees living in community housing on the island while waiting for resettlement in a third country.

Hotel Kolekta, a former tourist hotel, was converted in 2015 into a temporary shelter that today houses 228 refugees from conflict-torn nations including Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere. The island, just south of Singapore, has a population of 1.2 million people.

Indonesia, despite having a long history of accepting refugees, is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol, and the government does not allow refugees and asylum-seekers to work.


Many had fled to Indonesia as a jumping-off point hoping to eventually reach Australia by boat but are now stuck in what feels like an endless limbo.

Mohammad and his wife arrived in Jakarta nine years ago after traveling from his hometown Nyala to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and onward to the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago, where their first stop was the UN refugee agency office in the capital.

“We did not know where to go—just looking for a safe place to live. The most important thing was to get out of Sudan to avoid war,” he said.

They made their way to Batam in 2016, believing it would be easier to travel from there to a third country for resettlement.

All three of Mohammad’s children were born in Indonesia and he does not know where his family will ultimately settle. He says he wants to have a normal life, working and earning money so he can support himself without relying on others for assistance.

“We left our country, our family. We miss our family members. But life here is also too hard for us because for eight years we are not working, not doing good activities. Just sleep, wake up, eat, repeat,” he said.

Hotel Kolekta is administered by the Tanjungpinang Central Immigration Detention Center on nearby Bintan Island. That three-story detention facility, with its barred windows and fading paint, is home to dozens of detainees facing similarly uncertain futures, including whether they will ever return to their homelands, but in conditions that more closely resemble a prison.

Two Palestinian men have languished there for over a year, unable to return home due to the ongoing war in Gaza. Four Burmese fishermen are stranded because they cannot afford to pay for their onward travel.

Those held in the detention center typically violated Indonesia’s immigration regulations, while those living in Hotel Kolekta and other community housing entered the country legally seeking safe haven.

On Batam Island, Majdah Ishag, a 36-year-old Sudanese woman, has been living in the hotel for eight years after leaving home in search of a better life in Indonesia for her family. Her daily needs are met but she worries about the future and doesn’t want her five children to spend their entire lives in Hotel Kolekta.

“I hope I can find work and resettlement,” she said.

The UNHCR office in Indonesia says that nearly one-third of the 12,295 people registered with the organization are children who have limited access to education and health services.

Rahima Farhangdost is one of 5,732 refugees from Afghanistan stranded in Indonesia. She lives in Bogor, 37 miles from Jakarta, and has been in Indonesia since August 2014 after the Taliban banned her from working as a nurse and teacher in her hometown in the country’s southeast.

For five years, she received money from a cousin in Afghanistan, but that relative died in conflict and she has since had to receive monthly financial support from UNHCR.

“I heard the process is faster and that after two or three years, we could get resettlement. So that’s why I came to Indonesia. But it’s been a very, very long time—10 years now. I really regret it. I would prefer to die in Afghanistan, and not have come to Indonesia,” she said.

UNHCR Indonesia says more than 12,000 individuals from 40 countries in the country are listed as refugees under Indonesian law, most of them from Afghanistan.

Ann Maymann, a UNHCR representative in Indonesia, said: “Resettlement is not speedy … because it is not the UNHCR who decides. We cannot decide that a refugee will go to this country.”

Maymann said refugees under the current system cannot be assured of a better future in Indonesia, especially those who will not be resettled.

“That is exactly why we need to work on improving the conditions for the refugees while they are in Indonesia, because resettlement cannot be the only solution. Because it is not the only solution. Because not all will be resettled,” Maymann said. (AP)