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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 1: Pre-departure

Executive Summary


The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Research is following a group of Bhutanese refugees from camps in Nepal through to settlement in New Zealand.

The research involves three phases of data collection. The first phase involved initial interviews with a group in refugee camps in Nepal. The second phase involved follow-up interviews at the end of the resettled refugees' orientation process at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, and the third phase involved interviews in the community 18 to 20 months after the refugees arrival in New Zealand.

Since the 1990s, over 100,000 Lhotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepali origin) have been confined to seven refugee camps in south-eastern Nepal after the Government of Bhutan revoked their citizenship and forced them to flee the country. These Nepali Bhutanese spent 18 years in refugee camps, being denied integration into the local Nepal community or their return to Bhutan before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees offered third-country resettlement as a solution.

In 2007, New Zealand announced its inclusion of Bhutanese refugees into its annual refugee quota, and in 2008 the first selection mission to the camps in Nepal took place.

As part of the second selection mission in October 2008, 33 Bhutanese refugees gave their permission to be interviewed about their pre-settlement needs, expectations and experiences. This report presents the findings from these interviews.

The second phase of the research is reported in The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey – Part 2: On-arrival (Department of Labour, 2011a). This report focuses on specific aspects of the orientation programme and how it worked, how before and after departure expectations were met, and the refugees' hopes for their life in New Zealand.

The third and final phase of the research explores the post-settlement experiences of this group of former refugees and examines specific elements of settlement into New Zealand society. The findings from these interviews can be found in The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey – Part 3: Settlement (Department of Labour, 2011b).


The study explored the preparedness of 33 Bhutanese refugees to resettle in New Zealand after living 18 years in a refugee camp.

Pre-departure knowledge and understanding of resettlement

The pre-departure knowledge at the time of selection interviews was found to be limited. At the time of the selection mission interviews, gaining assurance of resettlement rather than information about a country was of most importance for most. Official information received about resettlement in New Zealand was only minimally absorbed. Most information came from family members resettled in New Zealand and knowledge of the country often revolved around New Zealand's clean, green environment. The timing of information given and the way in which this is introduced could be modified to be of greater use for those to be resettled in New Zealand.

The use of family and friends already settled in New Zealand as a conduit of information to those in camps could be a valuable resource as the population of Bhutanese in New Zealand grows. Overall, despite the lack of certainty and knowledge of resettlement, there was a general sense of optimism that outweighed concerns.

Short- and long-term expectations

The study participants had an overwhelming sense of optimism for their first 12 months in New Zealand and a sense that any change would be better than their current facilities and opportunities.

Although optimistic, the refugees were also realistic. Many of those interviewed acknowledged that they expected to experience a period of transition and adaptation and that their first year would be difficult but manageable.

The refugee longer-term expectations were somewhat higher than their short-term expectations with an emphasis on self-reliance and personal advancement.

Need for a safe home and family life in New Zealand

After living in cramped conditions in bamboo huts, most of the study participants did not know what to expect in terms of housing in New Zealand, but stated they would be happy with whatever was provided:

In general, the refugees had high expectations for neighbours who would be 'like' them and with whom they would interact frequently and be able to rely on.

Likewise, refugees generally hoped that they would be able to practise their culture and religion freely. However, many voiced uncertainty about whether this would be possible.

The reality of how to maintain links with others whilst dispersed throughout the world was becoming apparent to this group, and many expected that it would be difficult to maintain contact.

Most intended to keep in touch with friends and families through the internet and telephone, but had not thought about how they might make new friends in New Zealand.

Perspectives on education and English language acquisition

Overall, the study participants were well educated and had a high level of English language literacy compared to other cohorts of refugees.

Those interviewed held high hopes for further education in New Zealand. Many clearly stated that they wanted to take up the opportunities available to them in New Zealand to further their studies.

Almost all of the refugees acknowledged that their first step in New Zealand would be to enrol in English language classes and that learning English was vital to their ability to resettle.

Employment and the future

Nearly half of the study participants had not had any paid work since living in the refugee camps and expected to have opportunities to work in New Zealand.

Most of the refugees, although expressing their will to undertake paid work, did not know what kind of work they would like to have, and those who did know had unrealistic expectations.

Overall, most refugees felt they would be fit for work within a short period of their arrival in New Zealand and that a job would be brokered for them through a government agency.

Bhutanese refugees are optimistic

Overall, the Bhutanese refugees interviewed were optimistic about resettling in a new country and were aware of the challenges they would face. They saw learning English as a priority on their arrival to New Zealand and expressed a desire to complete further education.