Home > Publications > Research > The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey > Part 1: Pre-departure > Bhutanese refugee resettlement research project

The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 1: Pre-Departure


[I am] very happy and proud to move to New Zealand … I want to do something and let my children do something. (Middle-aged male)

Resettlement of Bhutanese in New Zealand

In 2007, New Zealand became the first country to accept Bhutanese refugees for resettlement. In 2007/2008, 75 Bhutanese were accepted as part of the annual refugee quota. Most of those accepted were resettled in Palmerston North and Christchurch. In 2008/2009, a second intake of 195 Bhutanese refugees was included in New Zealand’s annual refugee quota. This intake was predominantly resettled in Palmerston North, Christchurch and Nelson.

These cities were chosen for resettlement because, in addition to having the availability and capability to resettle a new community, they were deemed to be a good fit in terms of their environment for the Bhutanese community and could offer a good resettlement foundation.

In 2009/2010, 176 Bhutanese were resettled in New Zealand and as of April 2011, a further 105 Bhutanese refugees have arrived. It is likely that Bhutanese refugees from camps in Nepal will continue to be accepted for resettlement in the future given that they remain in a protracted situation, and therefore a UNHCR focus for resettlement.

The Bhutanese are a new ethnic community to be resettled in New Zealand. Given their small numbers, they will continue to require large levels of support from a variety of service providers.

Background to the research project

The 2008 selection mission to Nepal was used as a unique opportunity to undertake research on this group of refugees. The aim of the Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Research is to provide information about the pre-settlement hopes, expectations and experiences of the Bhutanese refugees, as well as their short-term settlement outcomes. This information will enable better support for the resettlement not only of this community, but of refugees generally.

There has been relatively little research on refugee resettlement in New Zealand. The notable exceptions are Refugee Voices: A journey towards resettlement (Department of Labour, 2004), which contains the findings from interviews with nearly 400 recent and established refugees, and the recently published New Land, New Life: Long-Term Settlement of Refugees in New Zealand (Department of Labour, 2011c) which is a preliminary report from the Quota Refugees Ten Years On programme of research.[5] However, this study of refugees before and after resettlement is unique both nationally and internationally. No other studies that systematically examined the expectations of refugees before resettlement and their short-term reactions after resettlement were found.

There are some studies of refugees after resettlement. These studies tend to focus on specific issues such as impacts on the health of refugee youth (Gifford et al, 2007), ongoing effects of violent refugee experiences after resettlement (Amone-P’Olak, 2007), changes in family structure (Currie, 2007), the challenges of integrating refugees into the workforce (Posiadlowski, 2007) or other specific aspects of third-country social or economic structure (Valtonen, 1998, 2004; Pottie et al, 2006; Spitzer, 2006; Beirens et al, 2007; VanderPlaat, 2007; Pressé and Thomson, 2008).

No substantial studies appear to explore these issues from the perspective of the refugees, before, during and after resettlement (Mitchell and Kisner, 2004). However, this is an important issue, as other researchers have pointed out. Gifford and colleagues demonstrate from their prospective study of a cohort of refugee youth resettled in Melbourne that important differences exist between studies that examine the importance of ‘meaning’ as made by individuals and studies that focus on the ‘measurement’ of indicators as decided by researchers (Gifford et al, 2007). There is limited understanding of how refugees’ own priorities and values may change between pre-arrival and settlement. This study takes account of these issues in its design. The substantive issues important in New Zealand policy and the provision of services for resettling refugees are addressed through a selection of topics and questions in a semi-structured interview.

Purpose of this research project

The findings of the Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Research Project as a whole will help to:

Monitoring before- and after-settlement needs and outcomes for this cohort will inform the selection process and resettlement of refugees through the Refugee Quota Programme. Little such monitoring has been undertaken in the last two decades. The complexities of world events and resettlement needs require the Department of Labour to monitor its practices to ensure they are up to date and in the best interest of the communities who are to be resettled through the Refugee Quota Programme.

Structure of the research

The research involves three phases of data collection. The first phase involved 33 interviews that took place as part of New Zealand’s refugee mission to Nepal in October 2008. Interviewees were asked about their background, expectations of resettlement, existing knowledge of New Zealand, their goals for life in New Zealand and expected settlement support needs both before departure and after arrival.

The second phase of the research involved a series of shorter follow-up interviews at the end of the orientation process at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre (see Department of Labour, 2011a). These interviews were designed to provide immediate feedback and information to the Department. These interviews focused on specific aspects of the orientation programme with a particular focus on how it worked, how before and after departure expectations were met, and the refugees’ hopes for their life in New Zealand.

The third phase of research took place in the community, 18 to 20 months after the refugees’ arrival in New Zealand. These interviews focused on specific elements of settlement into New Zealand society (see Department of Labour, 2011b).

Participants in the research project

Selection of participants

A mix of participants was sought, so selection criteria were necessary. The UNHCR assigns one case number to individuals and their families. The selection criteria process was as follows.

Only those cases identified as low risk by the Refugee Quota Branch pre-mission risk assessment and by the Refugee Quota Branch interviewing officer post-interview were included in the research case studies.

Sample characteristics

Thirty three people participated in the study. The sample consisted of 13 females and 20 males who ranged in age from 18 to 77 years, with a median age of 31 years.

The length of time spent in the refugee camps of Nepal ranged from 14 years to 17 years with most having spent 16 years in the camps.

Age on arrival to the refugee camps differed greatly with the youngest entering the camps at the age of 2 years and the eldest at the age of 61 years. The average age on arrival to the camps was 18 years.

Participants had a variety of current occupational backgrounds; from teachers, students, and office workers to those who were housewives or had no employment history. Educational attainment ranged from no formal education to a university-level education.

Unless otherwise specified, quotes throughout this report have been broken into the four age classifications of: ‘young adult’, which relates to ages 18 to 25; ‘adult’ which refers to those aged 26 to 40 years; ‘middle-aged’ for those aged 41 to 59 and; ‘older’ which refers to participants aged 60 years and over. Broad age classifications have been used to protect the identity of participants.

Interview procedures

Interviews were conducted in October of 2008 over 10 days as part of the selection mission to Nepal.

At the beginning of each day, a debriefing meeting was held with all those attending selection interviews. During this meeting the contents of the booklet prepared by the Refugee Quota Branch about life in New Zealand was outlined and the selection interviews were discussed.

During these meetings, the Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Research Project was also discussed, giving information about the study, including the purpose of the research and what participating would involve. The voluntary nature of the research was discussed, and it was explained that the study was not only confidential, but would also not influence or affect applications to be resettled in New Zealand. Information sheets in Nepali were also provided.

Following meetings, a Nepali-speaking interpreter from the International Organization for Migration asked all family members associated with a single case whether they would like to participate in the research. Those who wished to participate were again given information about the research. Decisions using the selection criteria were then made as to who within the family group would be interviewed. The participant was asked for their signed informed consent to the interview, and then the interview took place separately from other family members.[6]

Interview questions followed a semi-structured questionnaire format, and focused on background information such as education and employment histories; expectations of resettlement; existing knowledge of New Zealand; goals for life in New Zealand; and expected settlement support needs both before departure and after arrival (see Interview Questionnaire in Appendix B).

Interviews were approximately 1 hour long. Questions were asked in English but an interpreter who spoke Nepali was present to translate questions and answers. Interviews were recorded where permission to do so was given, otherwise detailed field notes were taken.

At the completion of the formal interview, participants had an opportunity to raise concerns or ask questions, in particular, questions about New Zealand and settling in New Zealand. The researcher engaged in an open discussion about this with participants.

Ethical considerations

The process undertaken throughout this research complies with the Association of Social Science Researchers’ code of ethics (ASSR, 1996) and Social Policy Evaluation and Research Committee’s Good Practice Guidelines (SPEaR, 2008) have also been followed. Further, recommendations from an in-house training manual developed for the research study Quota Refugees Ten years On: Perspectives on integration, community and identity were also considered in this research.

The researchers reviewed Mackenzie and colleagues’ paper ‘Beyond “do no harm”: The challenge of constructing ethical relationships in refugee research’ (Mackenzie et al, 2007). The paper raised the need for researchers to move beyond harm minimisation as a standard for ethical research and recognise an obligation to design and conduct research projects that aim to bring about reciprocal benefits for refugee participants and/or communities.

In relation to these concerns, it is important to note that in addition to identifying the needs of the Bhutanese refugees accepted for resettlement in New Zealand, this research has been designed to monitor and evaluate the operational processes of the Department of Labour. The information gained by tracking the impacts and outcomes for this cohort will help the Department in its efforts to successfully resettle quota refugees from pre-arrival to post-arrival.

[5] The Quota Refugees Ten Years On: Perspectives of Integration, Community and Identity programme of work builds on Refugee Voices: A Journey Towards Resettlement, to understand what life is like for former refugees who have lived in New Zealand for more than ten years.

[6] Consent forms were translated into Nepali.