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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 1: Pre-Departure

KNOWLEDGE AND UNDERSTANDING OF RESETTLEMENT

We don’t know anything so you have to tell us what is important for us to know. (Middle-aged male)

Introduction

Most of the Bhutanese who took part in our study had spent the larger part of their adult lives in refugee camps; many became refugees in childhood. Such people have not had the opportunity to know adult life as full participants in civil society since they have been kept as outsiders to local host communities. Although two of the refugees we talked to did have regular daily paid work outside camp, for most people the camps were a kind of restricted civil and political microcosm where the exercise of political and other rights was limited and individual effort in education, enterprise and other domains of life had only limited outlets.

This section explores the state of preparedness of one cohort facing the shocks and challenges of resettlement: what did they know of New Zealand and what did they want to know?

Context of uncertainty

When the refugees were interviewed for this study, decisions about resettlement had not been made and some had not yet had interviews with officials.

At interviews for resettlement, refugees were given the standard booklet about New Zealand that is explained by Refugee Quota Branch staff. While branch staff discuss the contents of the booklet with refugees during the offshore selection mission, the level of detail in which this happens depends on the circumstances of the mission and is subject to constraints of time and environment. Moreover, this briefing could take place up to a year before an individual is approved and allocated to an intake for New Zealand.

Once allocated to an intake, refugees also have a briefing with a representative of the International Organization for Migration. However, this briefing focuses on travel matters such as baggage allowances and the logistics and practicalities of the journey and does not cover information about New Zealand.

Knowledge priorities

With no assurance of resettlement and a history of protracted uncertainty, people in this study understandably wanted resolutions. For some, gaining assurance about being resettled rather than information about the country of resettlement was the dominant concern. As one man declared, he just wanted ‘to go there, we want to resettle’ (young adult male). He was echoed by a woman who declared:

It’s been a long time since we processed our case, so how long will it take now? If possible, I wish to move as soon as possible. (Adult female)

Most people interviewed were prepared to take the future as an act of faith, admitting that they knew little and hoping for reassurance of being reunited with family through resettlement. This was particularly the case for older people. A middle-aged man looked no further than being reunited with his daughter and family:

I’m happy to go there because my relatives are there. My daughter is calling me to come here. (Middle-aged male)

Others had family scattered through other camps or in India or Bhutan. They longed for resettlement to bring them all together even while they feared it might make it more difficult to retain family connections:

We have a little part of our family moving from Bhutan … some family [are] in Assam [in India]. We happened to meet here …. Communication is very important. I don’t know the address of [family in] Assam. So if I am selected and they are there also, to get the family together would be the happiest time. My brother and myself, together. So it would be better to go together. (Adult male)

If we are settling in New Zealand, after some years if we make a plan to come back to visit our relatives in Nepal or India, can we come back or are we not allowed? (Adult male)

For some people, the practicality of transit to a new country was of most concern. Most people we spoke to had little travel experience other than that of expulsion from Bhutan and trucking across India to the south of Nepal. They contemplated the practicalities of resettlement anxiously:

Me and my husband only understand a little English. I have small children so problem as only four people. How much luggage can we carry and where do we get our luggage, in Kathmandu or New Zealand? (Adult female)

How to reach New Zealand? Which way we have to follow? What should we carry in transit centre? I have small kids they might fight with each other. (Middle-aged male)

Most individuals were acutely aware of how little they knew of the larger issues of resettlement. The task of imagining the unimaginable – a question about life in New Zealand – was too great and they simply shrugged and said, ‘what to say, sister?’ Others gave no answer when asked what information would be useful, or responded as one young woman did, ‘No, I don’t know’ (adult female). Another declared, ‘[t]here are things I don’t know but I don’t know what to ask’ (adult female).

People recognised they knew very little about New Zealand and needed to know more, but they felt they were reliant on authorities for deciding and supplying what they needed. As one man said:

[W]e don’t know anything so you have to tell us what is important for us to know. (Middle-aged male)

This man relied on the authorities from the country of resettlement for ensuring he received good information and the preparation needed for resettlement; others knew they were radically unprepared:

What are the living conditions of that country? What is the culture and tradition? It is a new place for us we need to know about environment. After arriving there is medical and education free? After arriving, what kind of job do I get? And what kind of job do my parents get? … what kind of rules [do] we have to follow? Or can we follow our own? (Young adult male)

What are the house conditions? Is it like Nepal? What kind of country is it? The government? … environment. The law. How to live there? What is the life standard? What kind of house do we get?’ (Young adult male)

In contrast, the few highly educated refugees were able to articulate what they wanted and needed to know. Invariably, they wanted information about careers, responsibilities they would need to exercise, and new services and legislative regimes with which they would have to engage. They wanted specifics about how to position themselves and their family for best outcomes:

I want to know about industrial sector, entrepreneurship, day-to-day life, transport, health, convenience in terms of living with another society. (Adult male)

I want to work in an organisation in New Zealand for the community and for society. If I have private studies what will be the benefits or packages I get and income? [what] … about education and health … culture and traditional New Zealand? What type of facilities and jobs can we get? Qualifications and education will not match so what will New Zealand government think about us? (Adult male)

Young people were interested in opportunities to advance themselves:

Information about studying and jobs. (Young adult male)

Employment. What kind of job can I get and what will be suitable for me in New Zealand? (young adult female)

Older people who had little education struggled for a frame of reference in which to envision the future and form a realistic view of what they needed to know. They tended to fall back on understandings of how their traditional world had worked. As one older man exclaimed,

How should I go to market? How should I go to make friends in the village? (older male)

Few individuals displayed foreboding or fear about difficulties in the future, although one young man pondered:

it will be difficult for us to be there. I hope they will help us. Whether we can continue our study. I would like to study further. (Adult male)

However, for the most part, people were prepared to make a general, optimistic leap of faith. As one mother declared:

We will move to that country if we know something is better for us. There is free education for our children. Health medicine is free. Living standard is good. (Adult female)

Another woman echoed this when she declared:

[I] would like to know about resettlement. About women who don’t have guardians [but I am] happy that my children will go to school there. (Adult female)

Summary of knowledge and understanding of resettlement

Refugees were anxious and wanted to be assured of resettlement and were aware they lacked knowledge about the resettlement process. Some participants wanted to know more, while others were happy to leave things to fate and see how things turned out rather than identify specific challenges or difficulties that they might face. Refugees had a general sense of optimism about a better life that outweighed any concerns. Many felt that their lives to date had been so difficult that any change would be an improvement.