Home > Publications > Research > The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey > Part 1: Pre-departure > Expectations in the short and medium term

The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey part 1: Pre-departure


I do not [know] now, I will know when I get there. Once there I think that we will get a good education and a good job. (Adult male)


Most refugees have hopes and expectations that they will achieve a return to some sort of ‘normal’ life. However, little systematic research has been done to understand any expectations they may harbour (Hein, 1994). One of the few studies in this area showed that expectations can have profound effects in the communities of those awaiting resettlement. For instance, among Sudanese refugees in Egypt, the guidelines of the UNHCR and resettlement countries have undermined traditional marriage arrangements, so individuals have instead sought partners and adopted forms of marriage that will enhance resettlement prospects and acceptance in resettlement countries (Currie, 2007).

However, Currie’s (2007) research was conducted among refugees living intermingled with host communities rather than contained in camps. Therefore, this present study is unique. For nearly two decades, the Bhutanese have been largely separated from civil society and their existence has been largely determined by UNHCR and non-governmental organisations’ attitudes and policies. Some refugees have known no life outside this environment. Given that the option of resettlement to New Zealand is recent,[8] ideas about modifying traditional or local practices is likely to be limited. Camp life, its constraints and provisions are likely to be more important determinants of expectations of life after resettlement.

Personal characteristics of resilience and a sense of autonomy are no doubt of importance in how people look forward to an unknown future, but despite being able to exercise a degree of camp self-management, the refugees knew they were in the last instance dependent on the UNHCR, donor states and the willingness of third countries to accept them. They knew that after nearly two decades in refugee camps, resettlement in Nepal was not an option. The UNHCR had for years tried unsuccessfully to broker a return to Bhutan or local integration in Nepal but by 2006 the agency saw a bleak outlook for the Bhutanese in Nepal who had ‘little chance’ of returning home and likely to remain encamped ‘for the coming years’ (UNHCR, 2006, p 26). Only a year or two before this study was conducted, the UNHCR changed direction and resettlement was a preferred ‘solution to this problem’ (Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, 2004). Once again, the camp communities had little ability to make independent decisions about this.

This section discusses the short- and medium-term expectations of the people caught in this protracted situation and the UNHCR’s attempt to find a way forward. It is hardly surprising that several participants felt they were powerless and dependent on the will of others. As one women said, ‘[I] don’t know what to say. I think we will be doing what the people say and doing what the people give us’ (female, 35 years old, married, no formal education, mother). Another woman declared, ‘we don’t know anything. I think that my children will go to school. I hope that they will take care of us’ (middle-aged female). But if the recent life of powerlessness and confinement had helped shape such attitudes of some, perhaps more remarkable is the optimism of so many.

In such a small study, it is not possible to analyse systematically any substantive differences between men and women or older and younger people, although some research has shown different outcomes for different groups after resettlement (Currie, 2007; Dauvergne, 2006; Kirk, 2006; Newman, 2005; Pottie et al, 2006; Sherrell and Hyndman, 2006; Spitzer, 2006; Taylor, 2006). But on the brink of departure for resettlement, the commonality in expectations among this current group was more salient than differences.

Expectations for the first 12 months

Optimism towards resettlement was in part determined by push factors: any change would be better than camp life and facilities and opportunities in New Zealand must be better than those available in camp. This sentiment was expressed by men and women, older and younger people, the uneducated and reasonably well educated:

I think it is better than this life at home and being a refugee I think that resettling in New Zealand it is better than this life here. (Middle-aged male)

Living standards will be higher than here. Climate and environment will be better than this. For my children everything will be better than this here. (Middle-aged male)

Better than this camp or better than present situation, in terms of facilities [what is] provided here is not sufficient. (Young adult female)

The few individuals with university education more often expressed faith in specific pull factors and expressed well-developed ideas of what was needed to advance in Western societies. They were resiliently optimistic. Indeed, as one man said, ‘obviously’ New Zealand ‘is helping us so we will [have] better life and happy life’. Research has identified different discrete elements that need to be in place for successful resettlement (Ager and Strang, 2004), but the individuals in this study had a broad, general set of expectations rather than a sense of precise needs or services.

Some spoke of the removal of legal impediments such as refugee status as the key to better things:

Here we are living without recognition and after arriving in New Zealand I would hope that life will be better than this and [we will] have recognition … before we came here we were from Bhutan but we have no identity from Bhutan. (Adult male)

We hope we would [have removed] the status of refugee and after that our living standard would be higher. (Adult female)

Individuals with more formal education, older people who had had the opportunity to study in their younger days, and younger people who had had a good education within the well-developed camp education system were likely to be aware of the need for considerable personal adaptation after resettlement. There would, as one said, be a need for ‘transition … to adjust to new community’. The first year would be a ‘totally learning period how to talk’. An adult male, undertaking university education in camp echoed this:

Within a year nothing will be develop effectively. It will pass learning about language and culture. After learning these new things we will pass our life better in a developed country. It will take one year to learn these things. (Adult male)

Younger people could see that their less-educated elders might struggle. As one young man declared:

I don’t think it will be difficult for me. For my parents and grandparents [it will be] new big environment and new culture. I [was] studying in Calcutta so used to those types of big cities. (Young adult male)

Another young man echoed the concern:

For our parents it will be difficult for them to adjust as they are not used to new things. It will be easier for us and nice for the younger generation. They can be introduced to so many things. (Young adult male)

Older people who had had less opportunity for education did tend to be more anxious about maintaining the world they knew. For instance, they wanted to maintain extended living arrangements or at least live close to extended kin. As one man said, ‘if my family are settled together in the same place it will be good for us’ (middle-aged male); it is doubtful he could envisage the geographical dispersal likely in the relatively small-scale geographical distribution of suburban areas in New Zealand where he was likely to be resettled.

However, most adults, even those with limited education, were confident that they could cope with the challenges of change. They took heart from the precedents of those who had gone before: if others could do it, so could they. A woman with only primary schooling took comfort from her sister’s example. Although ‘it will be new’, she would adapt as her sister had adapted. When this woman’s sister had left she could not speak English but now she can maybe ‘some things will change in our lives too’ (adult female). Similarly, a man spoke of taking heart in a realistic way from his brother, ‘life is a challenge but not miserable according to my brother’ (adult male).

Despite being heavily influenced and constrained by the policies of international agencies such as the UNHCR, life in the Nepal camps enabled the continuation of some forms of civil society. Industrious habits of normal social life, trading and the practice of traditional crafts were able to be maintained (Fordyce, 2008) and administration was to a large degree in the hands of community members for day-to-day functions (Muggah, 2005). The maintenance of these practices of civil society stood these communities in good stead. Researchers have drawn attention to the ‘cultural competence’ of refugees or how social behaviours and values before resettlement determine behaviours after resettlement (Overland and Yenn, 2007; Snyder et al, 2005). Therefore, despite the many hazards and grounds for demoralisation in camp confinement (UNHCR, 2006), the Bhutanese refugees in this study were perhaps reasonably well equipped psychologically in some respects. By and large, they confronted resettlement with expectations of being self-reliant and of being able to gain meaningful work and advance through personal effort:

I don’t know what it will be like but I hope that life will be good there. If people have skills and if they can get a job according to their skills that will be good. (Young adult male)

We think everything will be fine. Have to work and not stay there and do nothing. (Young adult female)

I think that life will be good there just like in other countries. There we can study. (Adult male)

Expectations for the longer term

Participants’ short-term and longer-term expectations were largely aligned. Those who made a leap of faith about life in the first 12 months had the same faith about life outcomes in the longer term. The man who had confidence that ‘New Zealand is helping us’ in the first year had similar confidence of the longer term:

The people of New Zealand … I have faith they will look after us. (Adult male)

Others showed a similar alignment in their short and longer term expectations:

I don’t know what it will be like but I hope that life will be good there [and later] I hope …that everything will be fine there. (Young adult male)

We think anything will be fine there [and later] I think life will be better. (Young adult female)

New Zealand is an advanced country [and later] we will have a good life and live in an advanced way. (Adult female)

Participants envisaged consolidating rather than changing direction and on building on short-term achievements over the longer term. One man keen to use his first 12 months as ‘a learning period’ hoped in the longer term to have made progress beyond his initial aspirations:

I would definitely get the chance to study further that is my desire. The next is that I will be happy to see that my child is going to school as early as possible, I would get a part-time job, I might get the higher education at the same time so that I can manage my family too, like financial affairs. I would like to study science but I don’t know exactly, I would have to know the scope. It would be better if I get some orientation in learning the scope. (Adult male)

Even those who had expected little of the first few months had raised expectations for the longer term. One of those with the least sense of achievable outcomes in the first few months expected to be forward looking and autonomous in the longer term. This woman explained that in the first few months ‘I think we will be doing what the people say and doing what the people give us’, but felt that ‘after I have been there [some time] we will have learned lots of things’ and she would be able to make her own way (adult female).

Those who had not emphasised self-reliance and advance through employment and career during the initial period nevertheless placed those matters centre stage of their vision for the medium term. Getting employment was the key to the future:

Before entering into that country we don’t know anything but after entering after a few years we would be able to do jobs and improve our life standard. (Adult female)

Some changes will be there new places and new things. In Bhutan have no job. So in future I hope I will get a job. (Middle-aged male)

Life will be better. After learning some technology I will be able to get the job. I will be able to self-sustain. (Adult male)

Summary of short and medium term expectations

Despite the hazards they had experienced, the many political adversities and a long period of being powerless to control their own fate, the Bhutanese who took part in this study had well-developed expectations of life after resettlement. They wanted opportunities for self-advancement, although in the immediate term, resettlement was a longed for release from life as a camp refugee. In the first year, resettlement was expected to be difficult but manageable, although older and less-educated people probably had less realistic ideas of what the challenges would be and how difficult it would be to meet them. But in the longer term, all wanted self-reliance and advancement through education and work.

[8] This research was conducted with the second cohort of quota refugees from these camps.