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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 3: Settlement


‘We feel safe here compared with Nepal. I don’t worry too much about anything.’ (Middle-aged male)


Access to appropriate housing, access to and utilisation of appropriate health care and feeling safe and secure are all important for helping former refugees to feel settled in their new country. The former Bhutanese refugees have had to endure harsh and difficult conditions for a prolonged period of time. Many of the older refugees have experienced discrimination, persecution and torture prior to fleeing Bhutan and all have lived in the difficult conditions within the camps in Nepal.

Pre-departure expectations

Interviews conducted in Nepal showed that the primary reason for applying for third-country resettlement for many was to ‘increase the standard of living’. This was a term used broadly to describe a variety of factors. First, it was expected that third-country resettlement would result in being able to better meet basic needs such as access to housing, food and water: ‘better than this camp or better than present situation ... in terms of facilities [what is] provided here is not sufficient’ (adult female). Increased standard of living would also mean ‘living being a human being … to move from one place to another … no more life as a refugee’. In addition, it was hoped that a sense of safety and security could be established:

I feel more secure than here because that country is an educated country and rules and regulations are better than this country and things that happen here will not happen there. (Middle-aged male)

After going I would like to move from our troubles and would like to know security. (Middle-aged female)

Perhaps most importantly for many, the expectation was to provide a better future for their children who could have access to opportunities unavailable in Nepal: ‘my children grow up go to school and get education’. (Middle-aged female)

Housing in New Zealand

The housing circumstances in camps in Nepal are relatively cramped and basic, involving self-built bamboo huts close to one another. Small huts usually house many members of one extended family. Cooking and water facilities are basic with no electricity. In summer conditions are hot and dusty whereas winter sees flooding and accompanying mud.

Before departing Nepal there was little thought about what housing interviewees might expect should they be accepted to New Zealand, generally it was just acknowledged that anything would be better than their current conditions. However, at the end of the orientation programme, anxiety about housing had started to emerge. With little knowledge still at this point about what awaited them, there was a sense of nervous excitement about what their new home might be like.

In New Zealand the locating of appropriate housing generally begins prior to the arrival of an intake at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, and is a joint effort between Refugee Services and Housing New Zealand. At the time of interviews, all but one family located in Palmerston North were living in Housing New Zealand houses.

On arrival to the community, all but three of those interviewed had houses ready and waiting for them. First impressions were generally positive ones and expressions like the following were common:

When we first saw the house we were going to live in we felt happy and excited. (Adult female)

Never imagined we would find this sort of house. (Middle-aged female)

For those who did not have houses waiting on arrival, one stayed with a cousin, another stayed longer at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, and one was housed in emergency accommodation.

Most of those interviewed had not moved house since arriving in New Zealand. However, one had moved back in to his family home, and another had moved into housing closer to other family. Most were happy with their housing and felt that it was much more than they could ever have expected. Nearly all had also taken great joy in planting a garden and were growing a variety of flowers and vegetables successfully.

Housing difficulties experienced

Conducting interviews at the homes of those involved in the study provided the interviewers with an opportunity to view living conditions first hand. There were large variation in the types, size and quality of housing, particularly in Christchurch. As might be expected, issues raised about houses tended to be from those living in poorer quality homes. For those housed in better conditions, problems were not generally experienced, and satisfaction with their housing was high.

Cold and damp

The main problem and concern raised about housing was in relation to the cold. Many of the houses were visibly damp, with little or no insulation and had poor quality carpets. For example, one family slept together on the floor in the lounge at night during winter to keep warm. Another mother explained that it took her a week to dry her children’s clothes, and even then they were still damp. Another family’s carpet was in such a bad state that the volunteers helped to rip it up and put in some other (second hand) carpet. It was also noted by several of the mothers, that their children had developed certain health problems since arriving in New Zealand.[19]

Cost and suitability

For some of those interviewed, the cost of housing or the lack of suitability of housing for their family were raised as issues. Several families mentioned the fact that they were living in rather cramped conditions for their family. For others the housing provided was found to be expensive or in some cases more than what was needed resulting in higher than necessary rents. One member of an extended family said:

One house with four bedrooms would be ok, but now have to pay for two houses with an extra room we don’t need. If one of them was two bedrooms it would be ok. (Adult male)

However, for one family the suitability of housing was somewhat more problematic:

The house is well placed for transport but there’s not enough space for the children to play – nowhere safe outside. The house is very damp and the children get cold. We looked for a private place to rent but it is too expensive. We wouldn’t have the money to pay for childcare. If I start work they’ll charge more. (Adult female)


The vast majority of those interviewed, despite any other problems they may have been experiencing, liked the location of their house. For most they were able to easily access public transport, were close to kindergartens and schools as well as to local shops.

When asked if they had plans to move, many said that they did not. Those that said that they would consider moving said that this would be to another city and that they would do so to find employment or because certain courses were unavailable in their current city. Those that were dissatisfied with their current housing arrangements said they would move (within their current city) if something better was available. However, many did not know who to approach or how to go about finding a new house. As one young mother said ‘we’re thinking about moving to a warmer house for the baby – who should we approach about that?’ Another woman explained ‘It’s not up to us to move, not our choice; it’s up to Housing New Zealand. If the government says this is cold, damp and not good and they offer us another house, we are ready to move’.


For refugees, regaining a sense of security and safety is paramount, and integral to feeling ‘at home’ in a new country. As the refugee situation in Nepal continued, increased rates of suicide, domestic violence, alcoholism, and trafficking of women and children were experienced (Muggah, 2005). In addition, in more recent years, anti-resettlement factions within camps have actively promoted fear and misinformation to those considering resettlement by ‘publishing statements to, issuing threats, to engaging in actual violence against pro-settlement refugees’ (Banki, 2008, p 6).

On arrival to New Zealand, many hoped for a civil, peaceful society, but were not assured of this until after they had arrived:

At first we were afraid, we didn’t know what sort of country that we were coming to. People said we were going to be sold. But it’s completely different and we feel lucky we came. (Adult female)

There are rumours going around the camp in Nepal that New Zealand does not allow people to study here. We need to stop them. (Middle-aged female)

There were rumours around the camp that New Zealand was not safe and people would disturb you in your home but we took the risk and came out here and found it’s not the case. (Adult female)

For the vast majority New Zealand felt safe, and many expressed how ‘peaceful’ New Zealand was and how different their sense of security was to back in Nepal:

We were living in fear where we were. I have never before experienced such a safe and secure place. (Middle-aged male)

In Nepal if there’s an accident people will beat up the person who caused it. Here they take details and sort it out. (Middle-aged male)

Very much protected. Even if you keep the door open and go away, no one would steal anything. Not like in Nepal. (Adult female)

Health and wellbeing

Health plays an important role in the ability to actively engage and take up opportunities within a new society (Ager & Strang, 2008). Before arriving in New Zealand, interviewees had various ailments and limited access to healthcare. Interviews sought to find out if interviewees had been able to access the health care that they need in New Zealand, and how they have found the experience of interacting with New Zealand’s health system.

Access to Doctors

All interviewees were registered with a GP in their city and most had visited their GP in the last 12 to 18 months. However, interviewees reported some dissatisfaction about their GP in relation to cost. On investigation, it appeared that there was a wide variety of fees being paid for trips to see a doctor. It is not known if this is due to a lack of knowledge with the system and what they are eligible for, or not knowing which clinics to register with to get access to various subsidies:

We were told about the Community Services Card and that there would be subsidised medical visits. At first we were charged $10, now we have to pay $37. If you have a headache, there’s a $2 medicine that will make you feel better but the doctor costs $37. We know of another family where one person has to go to the doctor twice a week at $37 a time. It takes up half the benefit so the family has stopped going to the doctor. (Adult female)

General health

In general most of those interviewed reported being in good health. Some had even found that ailments that had troubled them back in Nepal were no longer a problem. As one woman said of her husband ‘in camp, my husband had a problem with the noise. The Doctor said he would need an ear operation. Since he’s arrived that’s all gone. He used to get fevers too and they have gone’. It was a similar story for another woman’s children as she said ‘my child used to have lots of illnesses, cold and things from the pollution but she doesn’t have that now’.

The women that had given birth since arriving to New Zealand had found the experience to be positive, and had experienced no difficulties with the process. All of these women relayed that it was much easier than having a baby in Nepal.

For some, the arrival to New Zealand and the subsequent access to better healthcare meant that health problems unidentified in Nepal had been picked up either during health checks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre or on arrival to the community. All of those interviewed who identified that they or family had health problems said that they were able to access the treatment and/or medications that they needed. However, for these people, their time in New Zealand had been more difficult due to their health, and it was recognised that the weather in New Zealand had likely exacerbated their problems.

Access to interpreters

Language difficulties often make it difficult for refugees to communicate with health professionals and therefore to get the help they may need (Ager & Strang, 2008). When asked if they had been able to get access to interpreters when accessing healthcare, most interviewees reported that this had not been a significant issue for them. Language difficulties had been overcome by the use of family and friends more proficient in English language attending appointments, or by doctors themselves being from South Asian countries (for example India and Bangladesh) and therefore they have been able to communicate in Hindi or better understand the doctor’s English due to their more familiar accent.


A key change from pre to post departure was in the sense of safety and security perceived by interviewees. Prior to departure there was a longing for stability, security and freedom after living as refugees in limbo for so long. New Zealand has provided this. During interviews conducted in the community, interviewees frequently commented on their increased sense of security and safety and there were the beginnings of a sense of ‘belonging’. Some, after living in New Zealand for 20 months, stated that they wanted to become a part of the country. For example, when asked what her goals were for the next five years one mother responded that ‘we will be citizens of this country’. She felt that her family was finally settled and her children were happy here. Another man relayed his hopes to be able to give back to New Zealand and share some of his country, culture, religion and traditions with New Zealanders. He explained that he would like to ‘share with our Kiwi friends … to pass on my knowledge [of rituals and philosophies] and wisdom to them. That’s my goal’.

For the most part, the needs of those interviewed for a safe home and family life were generally met. Many were satisfied with their current level of housing, and felt safe in their neighbourhoods and generally within their city and New Zealand. Many enjoyed their immediate location and the amenities available within it. In addition, the health needs of most had been met, and access to the care and medication needed had not been an issue except for cost.

For those who had experienced problems with their housing, this was a cause for concern and stress and was impacting on general health and wellbeing. Of primary concern was the damp and cold nature of current housing. It was also noticeable that for some there was little knowledge of their freedom to find new housing and/or who to approach about this. It is important that former refugees are informed of the appropriate channels to move through to voice their concerns and get help with their individual situations.

[19] Note: Housing New Zealand is currently upgrading its housing, for example by providing better insulation and heating through the Energy Retrofits Programme and the Healthy Housing Programme. The Healthy Housing Programme is a joint initiative between Housing New Zealand Corporation and District Health Boards.