Home > Publications > Research > The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey > Part 3: Settlement > Conclusion and issues for consideration

The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 3: Settlement


'We suffered so much back there, now we have happiness and a relaxed life.' (Adult female)

After spending up to 18 years living in limbo in refugee camps, the Nepali Bhutanese have had the opportunity to move forward with their lives with the offer of third-country resettlement. The Bhutanese refugee needs, experiences and expectations research provides a unique insight into the resettlement journey of a cohort of refugees, and explores the challenges associated with resettlement from pre-departure to arrival to settlement in the community.

The community interviews provided the opportunity to explore how the Nepali Bhutanese were finding life in their new home up to 20 months post resettlement. Most have settled well in New Zealand, but there have been challenges that they have faced and continue to come up against.


New Zealand does not provide any pre-departure orientation, focusing on-arrival orientation instead. However, before departure, refugees to New Zealand are given a pre-departure settlement booklet in their own language that provides basic information about New Zealand.

One of the primary findings from this research is that the Bhutanese had some unrealistic expectations about what third-country resettlement would mean for them and their future. This is largely a result of having very little knowledge about New Zealand prior to departing Nepal. This has resulted in some disappointment with some things on arrival to New Zealand.

Prior to departure there is a need to ensure refugee groups are given factual information about some of the realities of settling in New Zealand, for example, information on New Zealand’s education, health and welfare system and what is provided on arrival. Given the large number of countries resettling the Bhutanese, there is also a lot of confusion and misinformation within the camps in terms of what each country is providing. Managing expectations prior to departure will help to shape more realistic expectations on arrival to New Zealand and therefore make some aspects of the resettling process easier.

Orientation programme

All refugees granted residence in New Zealand under the Refugee Quota Programme spend their first 6 weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre in Auckland. At the centre they are provided with orientation programmes in their own language which provide general information about life in New Zealand as well as English language lessons and basic social and coping skills.

Interviews found the orientation programme provided a good foundation of knowledge. Of particular help were the English language lessons, obtaining a learners drivers licence and the familiarisation with electrical appliances and New Zealand culture. There were some areas where more help would have been beneficial on arrival to the community or whilst at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, namely; more practice with banking and shopping, access to identification and documents and a more appropriate format of the learners license test. However, as a result of the orientation programme received, most interviewees reported being adequately prepared on arrival to their home in the community.

Arrival to the community

Despite being well prepared, volunteers were integral to the group’s ability to adjust to their new environment and most were heavily reliant on them at least initially on arrival to the community. Volunteers are a critical component to the success of the resettlement of refugees. They provide not only practical support to set up a new life in New Zealand but are also a key social contact for many.

The acquisition of English

Communication difficulties and the acquisition of English language has been one of the key challenges and barriers to settling in New Zealand. For some learning English has been harder than anticipated, and progress therefore slower than what they would have liked. For others, there have been barriers to accessing English language training, due to a lack of availability of free courses or Home Tutors, a high cost of training, transport difficulties and a lack of childcare to attend classes. Mothers of young children have experienced the greatest difficulty accessing English language and had made the least amount of progress in learning the language. For the younger generation, the strong foundation of English language they brought with them to New Zealand has meant progress has been rapid and difficulties less pronounced. The acquisition of English language for many will continue to be a priority and women in particular will need continued, consistent support to progress their English further.


All three phases of this research have highlighted the value interviewees place on education. Despite limitations of a camp environment, the education system within camps in Nepal was of a high standard and the younger generation in particular have had access to schooling. On arrival to New Zealand, many of the young adults interviewed had taken advantage of the opportunities available to them and had enrolled in a number of different courses. The primary goal of most was to gain meaningful employment on completion. However, with a lack of knowledge about New Zealand and its labour market, there is a risk that his group may complete courses based on misguided information. In order to maximise this group’s potential there is a need for quality educational and career advice to be available. It is hoped the development of comprehensive resettlement plans may provide this advice and assistance for future refugee groups resettling in New Zealand.

Safety, security and general wellbeing

A key change from pre to post departure for the Bhutanese interviewed was a perceived increase in safety and security experienced in New Zealand. There was no longer the sense of fear experienced by some within the refugee camps and the label of refugee had been removed with their approval as New Zealand permanent residents. In general a sense of ‘belonging’ and commitment to New Zealand was beginning to emerge and some relayed their hopes to become New Zealand citizens in the future.

Cultural maintenance

Maintaining the Nepali Bhutanese identity was of high importance for interviewees. There are challenges with this given the amount this group is internationally and nationally dispersed. However, despite this the Nepali Bhutanese in New Zealand have maintained links with each other. At a community level in all three resettlement cities they have quickly established registered ethnic societies and get together on a weekly basis to socialise and worship. Nationally this group is also in contact with one another, some visiting friends and family resettled in other communities. Internationally the Nepali Bhutanese have also managed to maintain contact and are in frequent phone and email/Skype contact.

The ability to openly and freely practice the Hindu religion in New Zealand has been a ‘great joy’ for interviewees. Festivals are still celebrated, just in a different way or on a smaller scale, and traditional dress is worn and food cooked. However, the ability to worship for those based in Palmerston North has been limited, and this has had an impact on the wellbeing of some of those interviewed. For these people, gaining an appropriate place to worship and more importantly a priest is of upmost importance and will be integral in the ability for them to successfully settle in New Zealand. In addition, it is also important that agencies directly involved with former refugees including schools and health professionals are made aware of the cultural and religious practices of the Nepali Bhutanese. This will help to ensure mutual understanding in times of religious and/or cultural significance.

The scale of the third-country resettlement programme of Nepali Bhutanese means that many countries are contributing to the resettlement process and New Zealand can only accommodate a certain number each year. As this community finds its feet in New Zealand and becomes more settled it is likely that family reunification will increasingly become a significant issue. The process will need to be well communicated with this group in order to manage expectations.


Employment was the primary concern for many interviewees. Work had been hard to come by and was found to be the one disadvantage of being resettled in New Zealand. For many, there was a need to improve English language before employment could be obtained, but for others there was a readiness and desire to move into the workforce. As a group, they were not happy to remain reliant on a government benefit for their day-to-day living and most expressed a willingness to work hard and give back to New Zealand should this opportunity be provided to them.

There are ways in which the Bhutanese identified they could enter the labour market, for example, by working in market gardens. However, they identified the need for this to be brokered by a third party. In addition, it must be noted that many have not had the opportunity to work during their time in the camps in Nepal, and therefore have not worked since leaving Bhutan up to 18 years ago. Providing opportunities for vocational training and up-skilling alongside English language tuition will give them the best chance of gaining employment in New Zealand. Furthermore, informing this group of ways in which to do volunteer work in order to gain valuable New Zealand work experience and learn more about New Zealand work culture would also be of benefit. It is clear that there is limited knowledge amongst the Bhutanese about ways in which to independently look for work. More information on job seeking strategies in the New Zealand context may be a useful resource for this specific group.


The Bhutanese are an empowered group of people, who as part of the Community Development Approach were actively involved in the day-to-day administration and running of camps in Nepal and are used to having some control and voice in their affairs. In contrast, they have also been reliant on international aid for their day-to-day living and other countries for their futures in terms of third-country resettlement.

Whilst overall quality of life has increased, not all expectations of third-country resettlement have been able to met as yet and there have been unanticipated barriers particularly in relation to communication and gaining employment. However, the Bhutanese interviewed conveyed determination, resilience and strength. Whilst still learning about Western ways and New Zealand culture, they have quickly mobilised as a group and empowered themselves by taking advantage of opportunities available, enrolling in education, and forming Bhutanese ethnic societies. Interviewees had made some significant achievements such as learning English, gaining a drivers licence, and completing courses. They have many hopes for the future, which for most include gaining employment, speaking fluent English and most importantly for many, providing a better future for their children.

Overall, the future for the former Bhutanese refugees interviewed looks positive. They have faced many hardships and challenges in their resettlement journey but remain optimistic and enviably philosophical in their outlook of the future. As one man said ‘we come with nothing, we go with nothing’.