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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 1: Pre-Departure


My life, and my children’s life will be better … No more life as a refugee. (Middle-aged male)

Many aspects of the resettlement of this Bhutanese population make this a unique study into the resettlement journey. This study captures what is in effect the third substantial diaspora of this population. The third-country resettlement programme of the Bhutanese from camps in Nepal sees this population being dispersed by resettlement around many Western countries.

This presents challenges for New Zealand and the refugees being resettled here. New Zealand and host communities must quickly learn about this culture and their resettlement needs, and the Bhutanese refugees face the challenge of having little Nepali community to support and aid resettlement. This makes this study all the more important. This study will contribute to our ability to document the settlement journey and learn about the challenges facing refugee communities being resettled in New Zealand who have no ‘like’ others in their resettlement community.

The information received from this group has provided a valuable insight into the journey of third-country resettlement. It is clear, at least at the time of the interviews, that knowledge of New Zealand and an understanding of resettlement were lacking, and that what is of most concern is confirmation of resettlement. It was difficult for participants to understand a country and culture so different from their own, and information given at the point of UNHCR interviews appears to have been minimally digested. These interviews give a clear indication that modifying the timing of information and increasing the level of detail particularly around areas of concern such as education, health and housing would be beneficial.

In addition, as more Bhutanese are resettled in New Zealand, utilising networks of friends and family already in New Zealand to relay factual and practical information from their perspective to those still in camps in Nepal would be invaluable.

Despite participants’ lack of knowledge of the resettlement process and New Zealand, they were generally positive towards New Zealand and enthusiastic about the potential that resettlement might bring. This enthusiasm, in part, is due to the hope of finally being able to move ahead with their lives and leave behind the restrictive and prolonged life of camps in Nepal. There was optimism about being resettled in a modern Western society, and the opportunities this presents to substantively progress their lives, living conditions and possibilities.

Access to education in New Zealand was seen as a valuable and important step in the resettlement process. The limited potential for post-education opportunities in camps in Nepal meant many identified education as a primary route to betterment. Almost all of those interviewed had a strong will for themselves or their children to further or succeed in education and to take advantage of the opportunities that were not available to those living in camps in Nepal.

The importance of education for this group cannot be underestimated. It can be assumed the children of those interviewed will get access to education in New Zealand and the potential benefits this entails. However, the challenge for settlement will be for the young and middle-aged adults who have a strong desire and expectation to further their education. It will be important for this group to have the opportunity to access such education and subsequent employment to ensure they feel they have maximised their opportunities and are contributing positively to New Zealand society. Ultimately, the success of this will determine how well this group can settle and feel a sense of belonging in New Zealand.

Alongside employment and educational advancement, competence in the English language was seen as vital. The importance of being able to understand and speak the native language was understood, and almost all of those interviewed identified English language as an initial barrier to be overcome. Learning English was the first port of call, after this, education and employment would be possible.

Given the level of English language proficiency already evident in this population, English is less likely to be a barrier to integration and settlement than for other refugee groups. Further, the English literacy amongst the young adults and children within this population will also mean that in addition to formal English language tuition, informal family and community-based learning has the potential to be a further avenue for language development. However, there are challenges particularly for older people and mothers who are more likely to be at home and are at risk of isolation if their English language literacy needs cannot be catered for or met.

The lack of community support for this unique group is of concern. Throughout the interviews, participants expressed the desire to be resettled near Nepali-speaking and culturally similar neighbours. Given the small numbers of former Bhutanese refugees and Nepali speakers in New Zealand, this group may feel isolated and alone. In addition, the wide dispersal of this ethnic community throughout the world raises challenges for this community to maintain contact with family and friends being resettled in other countries or remaining in camps in Nepal. Innovative ways are needed to keep community members in contact with one another and to ensure this highly dispersed group does not lose its culture and identity. International organisations and countries of resettlement may need to play an active role in aiding communication and the cultural maintenance of the Lhotshampa.

However, it is important to note the resilience of the Lhotshampa. Despite living in refugee camps in Nepal for 18 years and being scattered across the Western world, this group has a strong cultural identity. It has preserved and maintained its culture in extremely adverse circumstances, passing on traditions and a love of Bhutan to children born and raised in the camps in Nepal. This group will bring its culture to New Zealand and other resettlement countries and will endeavour to continue its traditions and cultural practices despite the challenges associated with doing so in a Western country.

After 18 years spent in limbo, the Nepali Bhutanese are a community that is ready to make its own way in New Zealand. Those interviewed did not have a sense of entitlement; they were grateful to New Zealand for offering them an opportunity to resettle and better their lives, but they wanted to make their own way and become fully functioning and contributing members of New Zealand society. This group has faced nearly two decades of adversity and oppression, but has remained resilient, strong-willed and determined. While many still have hopes of some day returning to Bhutan, they are ready to be resettled in New Zealand and to make a new start in a new culture and new country.