Photo: Druk Air

The story of 12,000 Bhutanese in Australia

Close to 12,000 Bhutanese are staying in Australia, with about 5,000 being registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  While some go for jobs, others go to become permanent residents, many go for studies and some go on vacations or visits there to be with family and friends.

“There is a notion among the Bhutanese that when a person goes to Australia, they go there to work as cleaners and janitors,” Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji elaborated, “But that is not true at all. Majority of Bhutanese are studying and when they study, they take some part-time jobs, because that is allowed. The ones working full time jobs are mostly spouses and those working through the TVET system (TAFE in Australia).”

Lyonpo said those who do TAFE and get skilled, really get into good jobs; some others are working in airports, some work as officers, others work in research institute and some work as lecturers in universities. Many also work in industries.

“Cleaning is also seen as a profession in Australia, and there is dignity of labour down there, but sadly in Bhutan, that is not the case. We really have to change our mindset about that,” said Lyonpo.

He said one successful person he knows is Dr Sherab Phuntsho, who is a senior professor at University of Technology in Sydney. Another is sister Kanjur who is working as a nurse.

Many Bhutanese have opened up their own business in Australia while others are providing services as well as working in tourism sector, bartending, health care sector, front desk, hotels, shops, etc.

“These are good jobs, in my opinion,” said Lyonpo.

While COVID-19 pandemic affected the lives of millions of people around the world, but according to Lyonpo, only a small number, of about 200 people, returned to Bhutan from Australia after the onset of the pandemic, out of which a majority were students who returned out of worry.

The rest stayed there because they didn’t encounter many problems as the disease wasn’t as widespread in Australia as compared to other nations.

Lyonpo said the Australian Government has been incredibly helpful and supportive of Bhutanese residents similar to how His Majesty grants Kidu in Bhutan. People with valid visas can go to work or study in Australia and the government now allows people to go overseas provided the work and the agency is genuine, said Lyonpo.

“We want our Bhutanese to be employed here in Bhutan. We want them to be employed here and work here. The Government is trying by providing skilling programs, water flagship programs, DeSuung, etc. Currently, the work in Bhutan isn’t as attractive as in other countries, but hopefully that will change in the future and they will return to work here in Bhutan,” Lyonpo said.

Kinley Zangmo is a Bhutanese who has been working in an Aged Care Facility in Perth, Australia for the past five years. Her first mandate was to support higher studies for her husband as well as provide emotional and financial support, and achieve their goals. She is proud to be able to financially support her family in Bhutan as well. She said her life is one full of opportunities and challenges.

“I have never once regretted coming here. Let me tell you, it was the best decision of my life,” she said, and further said,  “True, I was homesick at first, finding jobs was difficult, getting used to Australian accent and cultural differences and living with others was a challenge, but challenges are what makes a person grow. Smooth waters never made good sailors. I have been able to visit different places, try different foods, gain various life experiences and mature as a person from a naïve little girl to an independent adult with several skills.”

Being an immigrant, the language barrier proved to be quite problematic in managing daily affairs for a girl coming from country speaking English as second language.

Due to cultural differences, she suffered bouts of emotional distress and depression as well as issues with financial management and was subject to multiple immigration rules and laws being a temporary visa holder. Also, people in Australia did things differently and making friends from different cultural backgrounds could take efforts to a whole new level.

She has not been affected by the pandemic at all, and continued with her normal routine. But some of her friends in different fields lost their jobs. She chose to stay back as Australia is one of the best examples of countries that tackled the pandemic with minimal deaths and casualties.

Initially, although she was on student visa, the Australian government and local charity organizations helped them with rations, food vouchers, etc.

The Bhutanese Embassy in Bangkok, which is now in Canberra, along with Australian Government has helped the Bhutanese in times of sickness and death, and even arranged special flights to ferry the dead bodies back to Bhutan.

Kinley Zangmo is just one of the many Bhutanese doing well in Australia through their sheer tenacity to grow and succeed in life.

Bhutanese in Australia are also a tremendous economic force sending in the maximum foreign remittance year after year and in 2020 their annual remittance is comparable to a Tala sized hydro project.

As per the RMA’s monthly statistical bulletin in 2020 of the total Nu 8.269 bn remittance to Bhutan, Bhutanese in Australia made up Nu 5.343 bn. A distant second was Bhutanese in USA sending in Nu 2.479 bn.

This is incredible considering that just in 2018 Bhutanese in USA sent Nu 1.371 bn and those in Australia sent Nu 1.591 bn.

This new economic muscle has also meant that the majority of land buyers in Thimphu and Paro are Bhutanese in Australia. 

This level of success is leading to many young Bhutanese taking up IELTS and others classes to go to the promised land of Australia to make something of themselves there.

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