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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 2: On-arrival


International context


The predicament of the Lhotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepali origin) refugees in camps in Nepal arose from internal conflict in Bhutan (see Map A1 in Appendix A). Those affected have remained in limbo as a result of the refusal of Nepal or Bhutan to accept their citizenship or for both countries to agree a solution (Loescher and Milner, 2005). This situation has put pressure on international aid agencies to find a durable solution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offered third-country resettlement. After 18 years, the Bhutanese now faced resettlement in Western countries, for which their time in camps and as outsiders in local society minimally prepared them.

Background to the Bhutanese refugee crisis

In the early 19th century, the Government of Bhutan recruited the Lhotshampa of ethnic Nepali origin to southern Bhutan to cultivate land. The predominantly Hindu Lhotshampa became the country’s main supplier of food. They remained largely unintegrated with Bhutan’s Buddhist majority until 1958, when a new nationality law allowed the Lhotshampa to hold government jobs and obtain Bhutanese citizenship (UNHCR, 2006).

In the late 1980s, Buddhist Bhutanese began to view the growing population of Hindu Lhotshampa as a threat to traditional Buddhist culture. In 1985, the government passed a new citizenship Act that denied many Lhotshampa their citizenship rights. Discriminatory policies followed whereby Nepali dress, language and the right to sell cash crops became illegal. In addition, the Nepali language was removed from the school curriculum (UNHCR, 2006).

Unrest in the Lhotshampa-populated south in response to these reforms began to surface. In 1990, public demonstrations against the new policies took place. In response, the Bhutanese government branded all those who took part in such protests as anti-nationals, and imprisoned and tortured several thousand Lhotshampa. Very few Lhotshampa were formally charged or stood trial. Repressive measures continued against the Lhotshampa Bhutanese, and increasing numbers had their citizenship rights revoked, had their houses demolished and were forced to flee to neighbouring India.

By the end of 1992, an estimated 80,000 Lhotshampa were living in UNHCR-administered camps in Nepal.

Conditions and opportunities in Bhutanese camps in Nepal:

Since the early 1990s, more than 100,000 Lhotshampa have been confined to seven refugee camps in south-eastern Nepal (see Map A2 in Appendix A). These camps have been supported by approximately US$20 million from donor governments each year (UNHCR, 2006). A community-development approach was taken in running the Bhutanese camps. This meant in practice a rights-based approach and democratic structures of self-management, the promotion of the interests of women and children, and equitable access to basic services. Comparatively high levels of primary, secondary and tertiary education were achieved, and several preventive health programmes were instituted along with regular nutrition and other services. In effect, the refugee population enjoyed ‘disproportionately higher indicators of well-being’ than the local Nepalese population (Muggah, 2005, p 152). The camps themselves are entirely refugee run – with the refugees providing policing, social, project, and health services, counselling, aid distribution, and camp administration. The result has been described as a ‘best practice’ example of refugee camp ‘care and maintenance’ (p 156).

Despite such a ‘relatively high standard’ of education and services, the UNHCR has acknowledged ‘considerable frustration’ among refugees (UNHCR, 2006, p 116). This frustration is ‘particularly pronounced’ among young people (p 116). The provision of education to advanced levels has raised skills and expectations that cannot be fulfilled in the context of confinement to camps (Brown, 2001). Suicide rates, domestic violence, alcoholism, and trafficking of women and children were increasing (UNHCR, 2006) along with child marriage, polygamy, and prostitution (Muggah, 2005). Refugee families were dispersed across different camps, and young people often lacked identity papers since they had been born in camps after families fled Bhutan.

Although the local host population did derive some benefit from the camps since the cheap labour increased the supply of goods and locals used the camp healthcare systems, local Nepali communities complained that refugees drove down wages, depressed prices and contributed to crime and prostitution (UNHCR, 2006). The failure to address issues of differences between refugees in camps and local populations has meant solutions ‘cannot and will not’ be found (Goetz, 2003, p 16).

Protracted refugee situations and policies

Global refugee populations are at the lowest they have been for many years. However, the international population of refugees left in protracted political stand-offs and their duration as refugees has increased (Loescher et al, 2008). Recognition of this has resulted in the UNHCR designating such situations as ‘protracted refugee situations’, defined as populations of over 25,000 who have been in exile for 5 years or more in developing countries (UNHCR, 2008a, p 1).[1] By the end of 2003, there were an estimated 6.2 million refugees worldwide (excluding Palestinian refugees who are dealt with under a separate mandate). By 2008, estimates were as high as 9.9 million refugees worldwide, half in protracted refugee situations (UNHCR, 2008b, p 1). Not only has the number of protracted refugee situations increased since the early 1990s, but the average duration of protracted refugee situations has almost doubled over that period (Loescher et al, 2008).

In the 1990s, the gap between the number of refugees needing repatriation and the number accepted for resettlement by third countries continued to grow (UNHCR, 2008b). In 2002, the UNHCR adopted a new strategy termed the ‘Agenda for Protection’ to develop ‘customised’ programmes (Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, 2008a). This new strategy aimed to share burdens between and build the capacity of states to receive and protect refugees. By 2004, this strategy had become the UNHCR’s search for ‘durable solutions’ (Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, 2008b).

The UNHCR’s three strategies for ‘durable solutions’ are voluntary repatriation, local integration in the country of first asylum and resettlement in a third country. The UNHCR’s search for durable solutions has had limited success, and in 2006 the UNHCR acknowledged that many protracted refugee situations remained because of ‘neglect by regional and international actors’ (UNHCR, 2006, p 106).

Resettlement of Bhutanese refugees

The UNHCR has tried to find a durable solution for the Bhutanese in Nepal. However, its attempts to get agreement for their repatriation to Bhutan failed, and the Nepalese Government opposed local integration. Most refugee leaders also opposed local integration. International observers criticised integration on the grounds that Bhutan’s behaviour constituted ethnic cleansing and local integration was a dangerous precedent (UNHCR, 2006). In 2006, the UNHCR acknowledged that the ‘many refugees from Bhutan who were deprived of citizenship [and] languish in camps in Nepal foresee little chance of returning home or reacquiring their citizenship’ (UNHCR, 2006, p 26). They faced a prospect of remaining ‘part of the UNHCR casebook for the coming years’ (p 27).

In mid 2008, the UNHCR acknowledged the failure of repatriation efforts (Feller, 2008), saying the United Nations had ‘found it impossible’ to broker solutions, so the strategy was to ‘phase out assistance’ and support targeted third-country resettlement as a ‘solution to this problem’ (Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, 2008a). The Bhutanese in Nepal were seen as a ‘priority’ for resettlement.

New Zealand has supported the effort to resettle the Lhotshampa. Other countries to offer resettlement include the United States, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Australia. There is no limit to the number of Nepali Bhutanese who may be resettled, and it is estimated that the process will take up to seven years as nearly one-third of the Nepali Bhutanese refugee population has registered their interest in third-country resettlement (Banki, 2008).

New Zealand context

Refugee Policy and Refugee Quota Programme

In 1987, the New Zealand Government established a formal annual quota for the resettlement of refugees.[2] In recent years, the focus has been on refugees most in need of resettlement as identified by the UNHCR. Before resettlement decisions are made, refugees referred by the UNHCR are interviewed by Refugee Quota Branch officers from the Department of Labour in the country of asylum or, where this is not feasible, by officers of international organisations in the field. Each case undergoes a comprehensive selection screening and assessment process that focuses on credibility, risk and potential settlement to ensure:

If the Department of Labour is not satisfied with the information presented in relation to any of the above considerations, the case is declined.

The New Zealand Government aims to ensure the resettlement quota remains targeted to refugees and that New Zealand has the capacity to provide good settlement outcomes to those accepted under the Refugee Quota Programme. The programme allows 750 places[3]. These places are made up of:

All subcategories within the refugee resettlement quota generally include the immediate family members (that is, spouse and dependent children) of the principal applicant.

In addition to standard family residence categories, two specific family reunification policies are available for refugees.

The size and composition of the refugee resettlement quota has traditionally been set annually. However, from 2010-2011 the Minister of Immigration and Minister of Foreign Affairs agreed to a three year planning cycle. The quota is reviewed annually in line with the three year cycle proposal after consulting widely with relevant government departments, the UNHCR, non-governmental organisations, existing refugee communities and other stakeholders.

New Zealand’s annual refugee quota is above average on a per capita basis compared with a number of other resettlement states (eighth out of the 19 resettlement countries). Other countries with significant resettlement quotas include the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Australia has the highest quota programme on a per capita basis.

The Refugee Division of the Department of Labour works closely with the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and other governments to promote international responsibility sharing, coordinated responses to refugee issues, capacity building, and the ongoing development of norms, policies and best practice in refugee protection.

Refugees accepted for resettlement to New Zealand under the refugee quota programme are granted a permanent residence visa on arrival. As New Zealand permanent residents, they are entitled to live in New Zealand permanently, and enjoy almost all of the same rights as New Zealand citizens.

[1] This definition effectively discounts the situation of a great many groups of fewer than 25,000 (Loescher and Milner, 2005). The UNHCR (2006, p 106) acknowledges that the definition is a ‘crude’ underestimate of what are often ‘chronic and stagnating’ protracted refugee situations. The humanitarian and academic communities have done some soul searching on the best ways to ameliorate these problems. High-level international conferences have dealt with issues such as relationships between policy components, issues of security, and the relative roles of humanitarian agencies, development agencies and civil society.

[2] New Zealand also assesses claims for asylum under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

[3] The total annual quota may vary by plus or minus 10 percent.

[4] For the purposes of resettlement, the UNHCR considers women at risk as ‘those women or girls who have protection problems particular to their gender, whether they are single heads-of-families, unaccompanied girls or together with their male (or female) family members’ (UNHCR, 2004)