A group of Bhutanese headed to Australia from Paro International Airport (Photo Credit: Bhutanese Messenger)

The causes of the great migration from Bhutan

The large scale migration from Bhutan in the last few years has generated much debate and even more theories on the causes.

This paper in a series of articles so far looked at all the immediate causes mentioned by people leaving and those who have left like livelihood, higher education, red tape, better business friendly environment, office hierarchy etc.

However, the phenomenon of migration from Bhutan needs to be looked at not only through immediate causes and local factors, but migration is a long term development, complex and it is also impacted by cross cutting international factors.

Also, most scholars agree that any decision to migrate cannot be pinned down to a single cause and that “the causation of migration is cumulative” (Massey et al 1993).

Decisions are taken, in descending order, at the intrapersonal, intimate partners and extended family level (Tabor et al 2015).

Both Thielemann and Neumayer have conducted quantitative analyses on the issue and conclude that the most powerful factors for choosing an asylum destination are, in descending order, the existence of migrant networks (relatives and friends in destination countries), presumed employment opportunities, the prospects for receiving a legal status, historical, cultural and linguistic ties, and the image of a country as prosperous and “liberal” towards immigrants and asylum seekers.

In addition, migration in time becomes a cause for more migration due to the deep changes it brings, and it is also important to note that a variety of international migration theories all apply in varying degrees to Bhutan’s current circumstances (click for story on pg 1 link here ).

The first modern migration

It was from the start of the planned development in the 1960’s onwards that the ones who got educated and were enterprising started forming a burgeoning middle class.

Coupled with this, our decision to go for English as the medium of instruction started creating a large educated group who had the right language, resources (in due time) and information (also in due time) for migration.

As the years progressed there were people who neither wanted to be in the government or open a grocery store and so moved abroad mainly to the USA to do a variety of mainly blue collar jobs and they are the main base for todays active Bhutanese community in USA centered mainly around New York.

This is much before Australia even came into the picture.

The 1999 impact

A lot of the causes of todays Australia Rush is looked at in terms of immediate causes, but it is equally important to look at the long term causes and enablers too.

In 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed it became clear that Capitalism had defeated Communism and so the world largely adopted capitalism and globalization which does not respect borders.

This was also the same time that our largest neighbour and developmental partner, India, finally gave up on state socialism and went for far reaching economic liberalization which would touch us too.

In 1999 Bhutan allowed cable TV and internet into the country and overnight the masses of Bhutanese in both urban and rural areas were exposed to globalization and consumerism.

They saw people abroad enjoying a much higher standard of life, they saw the different things that money could buy and so got exposed to all the possible wants and desires, but only a minority had the resources to fulfill all of them.

The entry of TV and internet also led to a dramatic change in people’s lifestyle and aspirations.

An anecdotal trend was that even in rural areas or semi urban areas where Gho and Kira initially dominated, it gave way to youngsters dressing like the people on TV.

The entry of internet and the smart phone revolution with 3 G and 4 G only hastened this process as the world was at the finger tips of ordinary Bhutanese. The high penetration of both cable TV and the internet gave both the desire to migrate and also the information on how to do so.

Added to this was that Bhutan became more connected to the world and the difficulty and cost of international travel dropped significantly.

A policy paper ‘International Migration: Drivers, Factors and Mega Trends,’ by Martin, Audrey, Daria and Caroline (March 2020) points out among the major mega trends of migration the globalisation of economies, values and aspirations and changing technologies and means of communication are important factors too.

Hopelessness and stagnation

More than a link between rising income and migration many in-depth accounts of migration describe how it is often not destitution that makes people turn to migration, but rather a feeling of inescapable stagnation. This is there in the works of academics like Åkesson, Frederiksen, Hernandez-Carretero and Carling and Mains.

The policy paper ‘International Migration: Drivers, Factors and Mega Trends,’ says that more than the casual link between development and migration apparently, it is more so about economic outlook, the perception of whether there will be better economic opportunities in the future, that motivate people to leave or stay, as opposed to merely economic indicators such as income per capita.

This more than any other theory may explain the mass migration from Bhutan as we do not fit in the usual category of wars, civil conflict, political instability and others as causes of migration.

However, when it comes to stagnation and economic outlook it makes sense.

A large part of our economy is dependent on government spending which in turn is largely dependent on grants. Our hydropower, tourism and all other economic activities generate just about enough revenue to pay salaries for public servants and run services.

We cannot generate the jobs that our youths want and even worse keep our professionals interested enough to stay in their jobs.

We have been unable to achieve self sufficiency despite this being our aim for decades.

In several past interviews done by this paper with civil servants, graduates, professionals and people in the private sector who are leaving there seems to be a unanimous conclusion that there is no future for them in Bhutan.

At one level their blame on poor policies, low pay, red tape, lack of importance to private sector, unemployment, favoritism, hierarchy etc for their motivation to emigrate makes a lot of sense, but there are also other bigger factors outside our control.

The World Population Review places Bhutan as the world’s most mountainous country with 98.8 percent of the country covered by them. This simply means we do not have adequate land for agriculture, settlements, industries and growth in general.

Bhutan is all set to graduate from the Least Developed Country status in December 2023 but a self critical UN report also points that Bhutan has deep and lasting vulnerabilities like small population, landlocked nature and unstable agriculture and its overall vulnerability is hugely underestimated and not captured well enough in our graduation report.

Ironically, we have looked at our small population as an advantage for a long time, but it is now turning out to be one of our biggest disadvantages as this coupled with our terrain and landlocked nature are the biggest barriers for economic growth.

What also does not help us is that generally, it is noticed that migration rates are higher in smaller countries as smaller countries have lesser resources and it also does not offer opportunities to the young people to specialize.

The feeling of stagnation was always there under the surface and growing, but the two years of pandemic brought it to the fore as people locked in their homes had time to reflect and think about their limited savings, limited future prospects and also about the outlet in the form of the Australia Rush.

Inequality and lack of fair play

 Before the start of planned development in Bhutan from 1961 onwards most Bhutanese lived a subsistence lifestyle and were mainly illiterate in terms of western education.

However, the modernization of Bhutan meant that while everybody’s living standards were uplifted there were those who raced ahead and became the new rich class of Bhutan.

The children of this class got better education, more exposure, had better social connections and hence got the best jobs in Bhutan, and they also inherited more capital and connections from their parents and were hence better placed to even take business opportunities further perpetuating generational inequity.

This also lead to a perception that the children and relatives of the elite are favored even though most of their advantages stemmed more from the systemic inequities created by the new economy.

A paper by Carling and Talleraas (2016) says that poverty-driven migration is not so much a result of absolute poverty as of relative poverty, perceived poverty, and perceived causes of poverty. People are more likely to turn towards migration if they think of themselves as poor, and see their poverty as a result of the place in which they live in.

In the Bhutanese context the Bhutanese migrating out are not poor by Bhutanese standards, but they feel comparatively poor when they compare themselves to this new rich class of Bhutan driving expensive cars and owning lucrative property.

They also feel that them staying in Bhutan does not allow them to break out of this trap of relative poverty or as many like to call ‘hand to mouth’ existence.

The Bhutan Living Standard Survey and the Poverty Analysis Rate 2022 carried out by National Statistics Bureau (NSB) found that the top 20 percent of the country’s population consumes four times as much resources at 37.3 percent as someone in the poorest 20 percent of the population at 8.8 percent on average. 

This relative or comparative poverty is ironically made worse by migration. For example, a relative, neighbor, friend or former colleagues seeing someone going to Australia and doing well by buying land or constructing a building back home will make them feel relatively poor, and they will start examining and blaming the drawbacks and lack of opportunities in Bhutan for them not doing well and it will make them want to migrate too to keep up with the neighbor.

Apart from the above is the issue of corruption as statistical analyses have shown corruption to be a significant push factor for migration. While Bhutan does well in terms of the corruption index globally, there is a strong feeling and perception of lack of transparency and fair play in many areas like government tenders, job vacancies, business opportunities etc. Abuse of power is common in Bhutan.

Development and the Migration Hump theory

A slew of international academics in the recent past especially from 2010 to 2019 (Haas, Clemens, Postel, Djajic et al, Dao et al) all supported the migration hump theory that migration rates increase with rising per capita income until a level of about USD 7,000 to USD 14,000 per capita and after this is achieved migration levels come down.

The logic behind this theory is that as a country develops more migration will automatically pick up as people will have the ability and resources to migrate and this will only slow down or reverse until higher income is achieved.

Bhutan’s per capita income according to the NSB was USD 3,358 in 2021. If we subscribe to the popular hump theory, then Bhutan should throw up its hands and wait till we double or triple our income which will be a long time coming.

However, some influential and ground breaking work by scholars David Beneck and Claas Schneiderheinze in their 2020 paper ‘Higher economic growth in poor countries, lower migration flows to the OECD Revisiting the migration hump with panel data,’ revisits the entire data set and finds that the hump data set measurement is not accurate and the hump is actually driven by a few small outlier countries with high migration rates.

The paper used data of 198 countries of emigration origin and 16 OECD destination countries for 34 years from 1980 to 2014.

It concludes that in time periods of 5 to 10 years’ economic growth coincides with less emigration. Even in very poor countries improving economic conditions rather discourage people from migrating

The paper shows that in all cases GDP growth rates of 1 percent reduce emigration by about 0.5 percent.

The relevance of this paper for Bhutan is that we should work to enhance our economic growth as it will start to have an impact on bringing down migration irrespective of our income level.


For a long time in Bhutan we have been talking about rural-urban migration and Gungtong as large numbers of educated youth head to urban areas and as our urban areas expanded.

This means we already have an active internal migration culture and this is now simply moving onto the next level at the international stage.

The policy paper ‘International Migration: Drivers, Factors and Mega Trends, says international migration can be considered an “urban phenomenon” as migrants mostly move from one city to another and not between rural areas in different nation-states.

Previous experience of mobility and building a new life combined with the universally applicable skills of living in a city environment make it much easier for individuals to accustom themselves to a new urban environment in another country.

As the world and Bhutan urbanizes more it will only enhance migration more.

More people than ever before will have an “internal mobility background” that could be utilised for “external mobility”.

Lucrative fees, cheap labour and Australia’s issues

While it is true that there are various local factors in Bhutan as ‘root causes’ of migration we must also look at destination countries like Australia, Canada etc too.

The Center of Migration Studies under the University of British Columbia in Canada in its Global Migration podcast points out that after the early 1990s with globalization, governments in developed countries reduced grants or funding to their Universities.

As a result, Universities started looking around for revenue streams and they soon realized that foreign students and the fees they could charge them would be an important revenue stream. They then started going all out to attract foreign students.

At the same time the demographics in developed countries with lower birth rates and an ageing population meant that developed countries needed temporary foreign workers for the lower end jobs.

Countries like Canada and Australia also came up with generous and attractive propositions for these foreign students with the ability to work while studying, bringing over dependents and also a work visa for a few years after graduation with a pathway for permanent residency too.

The foreign students not only contributed revenue to the colleges and hence the local economy, there but also doubled up as cheap temporary foreign workers who would do the jobs that local Canadians and Australians would not do like cleaning, hotel services, washing, old age care etc.

In the past, Australia, for a long time, had a ‘White Australia policy’ that encouraged immigration from European countries and chiefly Britain. As enough British settlers could not be found they accepted other Europeans and eastern Europeans too.

The White Australia policy was only dismantled from 1966 to 1973 after which it allowed Asians and others to come and settle in numbers.

Australia today is a diverse and multiethnic society, but the country is far too big for its still relatively small population of 25 mn not helped by its past race based immigration, and so as long as its long economic boom continues it will need as much hands as it can get.

The middle class are migrating

A huge misconception about the migration happening out of Bhutan is that it is the poor and the less privileged who are migrating.

However, as many international papers on this have shown it is usually the aspirational middle class who have the capital, the information and the boldness that initially migrate.

The simple matter of the fact is that when you can afford around Nu 1.5 million (mn) to nu 2 mn in initial fees and also the air ticket and initial living expenses then you are definitely not poor.

The worrying factor is that this middle class consists of many professionals like teachers, nurses, young doctors, engineers etc who are also migrating in numbers.

In the case of the migration to the Middle-East it is mainly the lower middle-class who cannot afford the Australia fees that are moving there.

Involuntary Immobility

As migration picks up in the longer run it can also lead to ‘involuntary immobility’ which is when migration aspirations are thwarted at the outset and people fail to leave (Carling 2002).

This is a largely invisible outcome, but nevertheless a consequential one.

When people have their hopes pinned on leaving, they are less likely to invest resources in local livelihoods and locally relevant skills.

Even in communities where emigration has brought significant benefits, involuntary immobility can drain resources away from development processes.

In the Bhutanese context it would apply to the youth or people who are unable to migrate for financial or other reasons but aspire to do so. This category of people would not apply themselves to local jobs or skills and plan to migrate some day.

It is true that migration is a complex and even dynamic phenomenon and so many factors go into it.

It is important to understand these things in the Bhutanese context before we can even start to get a handle on the issue.

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