Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Attaining Trishanku’s Heaven: Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement in the United States

Sreeja Balarajan

‘Bhutanese refugees’ will elicit you a result, unimaginable, a couple of decades ago. Even in the late 1990s, Bhutanese refugees did not generate the kind of results, they do today. This explosion of ‘knowledge’ regarding the Bhutanese refugees has coincided with one of the largest refugee resettlement process in recent years. It is unlike any focus and attention that the Bhutanese refugees have faced since their flight from Southern Bhutan.

Initially, the issue of Bhutanese refugees was to be resolved by a joint verification process between Nepal and Bhutan. This long drawn-out process ended in a stalemate but repatriation to Bhutan was never achieved. While technically contained within the camps, the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees had the dubious distinction of being refugees in a region ethnically similar to their own community and in many senses, moved freely in the larger sub-continent. Refugees travelled to India and throughout Nepal to meet their relatives, for education, employment, business, and some visited southern Bhutan clandestinely.

Within its uneasy birth and legacy, the Bhutanese refugee activism went through several phases, ranging from peaceful advocacy for repatriation, militancy, political front groups, and parties of all shades, splintering, coalescing, disappearing and coming together. The refugees were not immune to the larger socio-political movement in Nepal and the surrounding region of India. Not allowed access to legal employment and higher education, frustrated at their situation and lack of will by the international community, they were easy targets as recruits for political movements in the region.1

South Asian states, with their cross-cutting ethnic communities, have a history of internal conflict and intra-state conflict and tension as well. The increasing militancy among the refugee youth, Bhutan’s refusal to accept them back, coincided with the interests of the Core Working Group2 of countries, and pushed the third country resettlement concept as a ‘durable solution’ the Bhutanese refugee issue. Many refugees look back to the defining incident of 9/11 a decade ago.3They point towards the international community and the west, which felt compelled to choose one refugee population over another.4 Hence the advocacy of the resettlement process, which gradually came to the forefront, was dogged with a lack of transparency, secrecy, and misinformation.5

The first batch of refugees started coming to the United States in early 2008. By end of June 2011, there were around 47,843 Bhutanese refugees resettled into the United States.6 Nearly 50,000 refugees have been resettled abroad to all the countries; with a Bhutanese refugee who was resettled into the United States in South Dakota.7

In an age, where the South Asian youth aspires to go abroad, the educated and savvy Bhutanese refugee finds his/her golden opportunity in the third country resettlement process. Many such refugees will follow the expected path of other immigrants in the US. For others, it is less than robust. The refugees face the hard realities of the ‘American Dream’ in the time of economic stress and overburdened resettlement system. The Bhutanese refugees have the highest suicide rate among the re-settled refugees in the United States. A study done by the IOM, finds that suicide rate in the camps has increased from 20.3 percent per 100,000 to 27.3, post-resettlement, to 31 per 100,000 among those resettled in the US.8 An IOM study reported 12 cases of Bhutanese refugee suicides upon resettlement to a third country from 2007 until present, but it is acknowledged that this information is incomplete and, moreover, that there is no information on suicide attempts.9

The well intentioned but inherently asymmetrical power relations in the resettlement process has been debilitating for the refugees. The prospects of unemployment, stress on the traditional family and gender roles, isolation, and culture shock has affected the refugee population. Everything is not ‘as close to heaven as possible’ and ‘the necessity to adapt in a very short period to a new cultural and socioeconomic context can threaten the refugees’ self-concepts and creates disorientation’.10

In most cases, the younger refugees, with middle-aged parents are the primary wage earners for their families. The resettlement process has put majority of the Bhutanese refugees in the traditional employment path of newly arrived refugees in the US. These are predominantly entry level jobs. The younger age group and women (from all age levels) have been largely absorbed into the hospitality and retail industry. Food processing sectors like meat-packing factories have has absorbed the low skilled refugees from all age groups.11 Middle-aged and elderly refugees, forced to supplement their incomes, find work in less–than-desirable scenarios. Though the resettlement agencies are not ‘employment agencies’; they do facilitate employment opportunities. These agencies usually provide orientation services, follow-up and support services for employment.12 However, preliminary surveys and media reports indicate that there is no process to verify the effectiveness of such support services. Mostly, Bhutanese refugees (particularly new-arrivals) have to rely on kin-networks for employment opportunities.

The elderly refugees tend to be isolated due to language, and employment barriers and the changing family hierarchies. This generation has resigned themselves to the reality of never regaining what they lost. Parents with inadequate English language abilities are compelled to seek employment and are often held ransom by their school-going children as they can adapt to the language and other skills in the new environment.

An important question, often left unaddressed in this discourse is the role evangelical and proselytizing groups in the resettlement process. These groups often work alongside the resettlement agencies, stepping in to fill the gaps in the system, which the resettlement agencies are unable to meet. The unequal power relations of culture, social and economic status and perceptions of religion, combined with the burden of obligation, also contributes to the process of racial stereotyping.

During the initial phase, the reality of ‘the business of living’ has overshadowed the political aspects of their cause. A plethora of community organizations have mushroomed in the U.S.A. Many are cautious about the perception of any political activity/allegiance. For those who were born in Bhutan and were young adults in the camps, the frustrations, downward mobility and rigors of life in the U.S. are more real. Given the reality of geo-political interests in the region, these aspirants might well find themselves as pawns in the larger power politics of South Asia.

The Bhutanese refugee networks, by way of online forums, news agencies and communication have also given rise to a vibrant discourse on the issues that concern the refugees. Increasingly these networks have allowed the Bhutanese refugees to take ownership, and become active participants on the questions and narratives of their identity, belonging and citizenship.

The unequal power structures in the resettlement system, will offer complex challenges for the Bhutanese refugees straddling the thin line between ‘orientation’ and ‘assimilation’. For the Nepali-Bhutanese, the flight from southern Bhutan challenging the State’s ‘invisible’ and ‘unwritten’ legacy might seem to end in a distant geographical arc with this resettlement process. However, the important question would be, whether this would quench their quest for a stable and undisputed identity or not? Or will it remain as Trishanku’s heaven?

Notes and References

1 Interviews with refugee youth in Beldangi I, II, III and Goldhap, April-May 2001. Follow up interviews from 2009 till the present. See also, Sreeja C T, Ethnicity in South Asia: A Study of the Nepali-Bhutanese Refugees, Unpublished Doctoral Thesis submitted to the University of Hyderabad, India, 2006.
2 The Core Working Group was formed in 2005. It consisted of Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Norway and U.S.A. The European Commission was an observer. The aim, was to ensure that Bhutan and Nepal work together towards a comprehensive solution to the refugee problem.
3 Interviews with Balaram Poudel, R K Dorji, 23 July 2011, Kathmandu. Interview with Tek Nath Rizal, 25 July 2011, Kathmandu and Dr. Bhampa Rai, 6 August 2011, Damak. Interview with a cross-section of refugees from the Camps of Beldangi-I,II, nd III, Timai, Sanischare, and refugees from the Goldhap The camp was relocated into Beldangi in July-August, 2011 Nepal.
4 In the wake of 9/11, the US and the western countries were reluctant to accept refugees from the Middle East. In order to fulfill their refugee quotas, these countries focused on the largely Hindu, Buddhist (and increasingly Christian) Bhutanese refugees. See also, Susan Banki’s analysis, Resettlement of the Bhutanese from Nepal: The Durable Solution Discourse, in Howard Adelman, ed., Protracted Displacement in Asia: No Place to Call Home [Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2008], p.49. Apart from that this is based on interviews with Bhutanese Refugees since 2006, Nepalese journalists from July to August 2011 and refugee leaders on July 2011 in Kathmandu.
5 From the standpoint of the refugees, the less-than-straightforward process of advocacy for re-settlement encompassed various incidents in the camps that brought the re-settlement option to the forefront, to serve the ‘vested interests’ in the refugee community, the relief agencies themselves, the governments of Bhutan and Nepal, and the Core Working Group. This is based on series of interviews with Bhutanese Refugees since 2006. Apart from that I have also interviewed Nepalese journalists (July –August 2011, Nepal), and refugee leaders in Kathmandu (July 2011). Interview with Beldangi-I, II and III refugees, July 2011. See also Susan Banki, pp.48-49. See also Shiva Dhungana, Refugee Watch.
6 UNHCR figures provided by the UNHCR Office, Kathmandu Nepal. July 2011.
8 Guglielmo Schininà, Sonali Sharma, Olga Gorbacheva, Anit Kumar Mishra, Who am I? : Assessment Of Psychosocial Needs And Suicide Risk Factors Among Bhutanese Refugees In Nepal And After Third Country Resettlement, IOM Migration Health Division Mental Health, Psychosocial Response and Intercultural Communication Section and Mission in Nepal, 201. Accessed at:
9 Ibid, p.7
10 R.K. Papdopoulos (2002) Refugees, home and trauma. In 'Therapeutic Care for Refugees.
No Place Like Home', edited by author. London: Karnac. Tavistock Clinic Series quoted in Ibid, p.5
11 For example Bhutanese refugees re-settled in Pennsylvania and North Carolina work in these factories. Bhutanese refugees also travel from Virginia to work in these factories. For example in Central VA, semi-skilled refugees (different age groups) have also been employed in wood factories, farms and seasonal jobs.
12 List of National Volunteer Agencies, known as VOLAGs and their affiliated agencies which work with the State. Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration’s, Reception and Placement Program, are given here:

No comments: