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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 1: pre-Departure


Everything is good and everything is taken care of by the Government. (Young male)


In this study, 33 refugees being considered for resettlement in New Zealand were asked about how they had arrived at their knowledge of New Zealand. Since they had all been confined to refugee camps for nearly two decades, their networks for accessing new information were constrained. New Zealand had been in view as a third-country destination only recently; when study participants were interviewed just one previous cohort of Bhutanese had been resettled in New Zealand, so there had been little reason for others to gather information systematically on New Zealand. Although New Zealand had been the first country to accept members of this community, other countries were accepting far larger numbers.[7] Given this, it was understandable that many refugees knew little of New Zealand.

Most admitted ignorance despite having been given official information and despite having close personal networks to New Zealand. As one young woman declared, ‘[I] don’t know anything’ even though ‘necessary information [had been] provided’ by the UNHCR and a ‘brother in New Zealand. New Zealand will be good for us’ (adult female). This young woman was not alone in professing complete ignorance and having been briefed with the ‘necessary information’ by the UNHCR and having gained information from a resettled brother and having a general expectation that all would be well. This section explores what might lie behind such a response.

Knowledge sources: formal briefings and education

Ten individuals stated that that they knew nothing about New Zealand, either before or after interviews with officials or from their own education. Typically, they said simply, ‘I know nothing’ (young adult female) and ‘I don’t know’ (young adult female). Most people had a patchwork of knowledge from a medley of sources. As one young woman declared:

I got [information] from someone who is resettled in New Zealand … [and] I get to know by the interview. (Young adult female)

Official information seemed to have been of limited impact. Of those who mentioned interviews with officials, few specifics could be gleaned. When asked, ‘were there any new things you found out about New Zealand today?’ only 7 out of 31 people said they had learned something specific. The others gave either no answer (16 people) or an equivocal answer (1 person). The seven people who said they had gained some knowledge referred to having received a booklet, having watched television or having read newspapers. One man with a university education who was listed as having a teaching job, listed items he had learned, but nevertheless indicated he was disappointed, ‘I was expecting more information’.

Of the 23 participants who said they had known something about New Zealand before their interview with New Zealand officials, a few mentioned briefings from the UNHCR. The UNHCR officials had evidently put the case of the ‘durable solution’ of resettlement, which had been adopted to cope with protracted refugee situations such as the situation of these people in Nepal:

[The] UNHCR/[International Organization for Migration] referred us and we can’t repatriate in Bhutan because we are chased by Bhutan. So for our good future and for our regiment [sic] the resettlement is very much important for us. (Middle-aged male)

There were talks about New Zealand and the government and I was interested that is why I came to the UNHCR. They talked about third-country resettlement. So … that is why we came to the UNHCR and we want to resettle in New Zealand. (Adult female)

Learning that they might be resettled in New Zealand had not necessarily induced a single information-seeking response: some people were galvanised into active searching for specific information about New Zealand after UNHCR dealings and others let matters rest. ‘When selected for the New Zealand … we tried to find out information’ (adult female). Another woman did the opposite. The ‘UNHCR [was the] main source’, but she decided to wait until ‘after settling [when] we will try to find out information about New Zealand, climate and land etc’ (adult female).

Others had acquired disparate factual information in the course of more general study or by browsing official or media data sources. Participants mentioned sources such as ‘booklet[s]’ and internet searches (adult male) or having ‘browsed not gathered information’ (middle-aged male). A few were specific, ‘read the New Zealand Immigration Service bulletin’ (adult male). Others had gained factual knowledge from their formal education:

While studying geography [I] came to know it is an island near Australia. Two main islands. Climate is 0 to 18 degrees. People diverse community. Māori indigenous people. Democratic country. Dairy products are popular. Occupation is more industrial agriculture. Life standard is similar to Australia – a developed country. 100% literacy. Dairy farming is as good as in Australia. (Adult male)

It is an island country. It is a country of Kiwis. Most of the people speak English. Some speak another language. It is a country full of beautiful scenery and greenery. Neighbouring country is Australia. (Young adult male)

Knowledge sources: personal family networks

The most usual knowledge of New Zealand came from family members resettled in New Zealand. Family evidently played a key role for refugees still awaiting resettlement. As one young man explained:

Don’t know anything because no relatives are there. That’s why I don’t know. (Young adult male)

Most participants did have resettled family, and all of these people explained that their resettled family members were regularly in touch and acted as sources of information, although the information as it pertained to New Zealand was minimal and usually vague and piecemeal. Probably New Zealand society and conditions were discussed only as context for news of family activities and progress. Typical responses were:

I don’t know much about New Zealand … my brother resettled in New Zealand. (Adult male)

My sister is there … I hear it is a small and beautiful country. (Young adult female)

I don’t know much, but I have a sister and a brother-in-law there. (Young adult male)

The means of communicating with family were sophisticated. Some used the telephone like the man who talked regularly with ‘my sister and brother-in-law over the phone’ (Young adult male). However, most appear to have used the internet:

My sister is there. I keep in touch through the internet. (Young adult female)

My brother has sent some photographs through the internet. (Adult male)

Individuals appear to have gained reassurance and hopeful expectations from family rather than useful, practical, detailed information for life and progress in New Zealand. The expectations formed on this basis were hopeful:

New Zealand is a peaceful country and a peaceful environment. Our relatives are there and they tell us things are good there. (Young adult female)

They say they have a hospital and health facilities provided by the Government and are free for us. (Middle-aged male)

Peaceful country. One brother already there. I learned from him that [it is a] very good environment, it will be good for us to settle there. (Adult male)

Sometimes hopeful expectations appear to have bordered on the over-optimistic. Some people appeared to have the impression of a cocoon of complete care from the Government:

My life and children’s life will be better. Government and organisations will take care of us. (Middle-aged male)

Everything is good and everything is taken care of by the Government. (Young adult male)

I think we can solve our life there very comfortably that’s the expectation. (Young adult female)

Limitations and potential of offshore preparation

Overall, even after official briefings and long and regular contact with resettled family members, the prospective refugees who spoke with us had little practical or useful knowledge about the country in which they were to be resettled.

This lack of knowledge may be the result of three factors. First, the effect of being a refugee for many years may render incomprehensible information and briefings about alien matters such as New Zealand’s bureaucratic and administrative systems, welfare and employment regimes, and social customs of diet, clothing, housing, health and schooling. Secondly, after a lifetime as a camp refugee continuously disappointed with neither repatriation nor local integration occurring, people may have become resigned to having their fate decided for them. Such people might have become indifferent or unmotivated to search out information about yet another change that might not eventuate. Thirdly, for some individuals, traditional customs and issues of literacy and education precluded personal information searching. As one woman explained:

My husband and children … are educated, so everything is done by husband and children so I know nothing about it. I would like to know their language [in New Zealand]. I want to understand. (Adult female)

This woman had not surrendered her will to understand – indeed she said, ‘I want to understand’ – but she knew the limitations to what she could do to inform herself independently.

It is notable however, that those who had family connections in New Zealand resettled as part of the 2007/2008 intake had limited knowledge of New Zealand. Although some information had flowed back to families in camps, it was generally not practical facts and advice.

Research from refugee situations elsewhere has demonstrated that feedback from resettled family can be a powerful influence on family members remaining as camp refugees. It can influence not only expectations of the third country, but influence the social manners, clothing, dance and diet of those in the camps who model themselves on resettled family (Porter et al, 2008). However, such influences in these cases had built up over a fairly long period of gradual resettlement whereas this study cohort was only the second intake.


The recognition that resettled family members are a primary source of information for refugees could be used to advantage in policy development. Currently, the main external source of information is from officials and a booklet on New Zealand. These sources seem to have been of limited use in preparing people for life in New Zealand. When asked soon after the settlement interviews, few study participants stated that they had learnt anything useful in interviews; no one related anything that would help them adjust to New Zealand. Instead, some gave a few items of fact such as the name of the capital city and main languages spoken. In some ways, this is hardly unexpected given that momentous changes were in prospect and much that was happening was novel and perhaps overwhelming or disorienting.

The need for some authoritative source for pre-departure information is all the more important since camps are often grounds for campaigns against resettlement, which may give rise to misinformation. Gale (2008, p 541) argues the ‘microclimates’ of camps had a ‘profound effect on refugees’ livelihood opportunities, social networks, and future outlook’ and had an ‘immediate influence on refugee decision-making”.  

In the Bhutanese refugee camps, conflicting opinions on resettlement have emerged with Bhutanese political leaders fearing resettlement will minimise efforts to promote political reform in Bhutan and ultimately end any hope of repatriation to Bhutan. A lack of information about third-country resettlement has provided fuel for those who are anti-resettlement. Such groups have actively discouraged resettlement by ‘publishing statements to issuing threats to engaging in actual violence against pro-settlement refugees’ (Banki, 2008, p 6). Rumours propagated by those who are anti-resettlement range from misinformation (for example, ‘I heard that in 20 years New Zealand will be no more’, ‘they give you vaccinations before you go to make you sterile’) to information resulting from an adverse event in a resettlement country being taken out of context (for example, ‘marry your daughters before you send them for resettlement as unmarried girls will be raped’).

Summary of pre-departure knowledge and misinformation

The run-up to resettlement is important for orienting refugee communities. Their lack of general knowledge about New Zealand indicates that information currently given is insufficient or is given when their focus is on obtaining certainty of resettlement rather than information gathering.

New Zealand could take better advantage of the ‘natural’ connections of family networks. It is clear that resettled family are a main conduit of information to refugees, but little of the information flowing back appears sufficiently specific and practical to help people prepare for life after resettlement or to combat campaigns of misinformation. Resettled family could be actively encouraged to realistically advise and reassure. They could help to equip oncoming cohorts of refugees to make the best of a change for which they are without precedent.

[7] The United States has committed to considering the resettlement of 60,000 Bhutanese refugees and as of December 2010 has accepted 34,129 people.