Pictures of religious, official and social gatherings of Bhutanese in Australia

Understanding the Australia Rush and the ground realities there

The USA may have experienced the California Gold Rush in the mid 19th century, but Bhutan is experiencing its very own ‘Australia Rush’ that started as a trickle around a decade ago, but is now a mighty and roaring river.

The city of Perth, which has the most number of Bhutanese people, itself has around 10,000 to 12,000 Bhutanese and the number of Bhutanese in Canberra, which is the second largest settlement, would be around 2,000 plus. There are smaller numbers in other places like Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane etc. This means that the total number of Bhutanese in Australia would range from 12,000 to 15,000 and growing.

Australia is also the largest source of foreign currency remittance especially during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 which saw record remittances of Nu 8.269 bn and 8,062 bn total remittance respectively of which Australia made up Nu 5.343 bn in 2020 and Nu 4.029 bn in 2021.

Why Australia is so attractive

Bhutan’s Ambassador to Australia, Sonam Tobgay, talking from the capital city Canberra said that most Bhutanese are coming to Australia as it is seen as a very favorable destination for study along with cheaper fees than those in the USA or Europe.

“The other advantage, unlike USA and Europe, is that you can work while studying and if you bring family (immediate) they can also work which is better than in other countries and that is why Australia is so attractive,” he said.

The attraction does not stop there as for the self funded students they are usually allowed to work the same number of years as their course after graduation. So if a student has done a two years Masters program then they usually get a visa for another two years after their graduation to use their skills in Australia.

It still does not end here as then there is an opportunity to get a Permanent Resident (PR) status, which is not citizenship, but allows you to live and work in Australia.

The President of the Association of Bhutanese in Perth Incorporated (ABPI), Tshewang Rinzin, said that every six months to five years the Australian government lists hundreds of skills that are required in Australia and if one has those skills then one can apply for PR.

Tsewang said the skills are in a variety of fields like engineering, community work, auto mechanic, health worker, restaurant manager etc.

The PR aspect is important as there is an increasing trend of Bhutanese not going there just for studies and work, but also applying for PR to have a longer stay here or even settle there with family.

One more advantage for Bhutanese getting PR there is that they do not have to pay higher stamp duties and other fees while buying property.

Explaining the trend of most Bhutanese staying in Perth, the Ambassador said that his own assumption is that the fees in the colleges in Perth are cheaper, including the living costs, compared to Sydney or Melbourne and the city is bigger than even the capital city of Canberra. He said in addition to this a Bhutanese community built up there over time.

This makes sense as many Bhutanese traveling to Australia often rely on relatives or friends to help them out in the first few months.

How to prepare for initial expenses, place to stay and getting a job

The President of the Australia Bhutanese Association of Canberra (ABAC), Dorji Tshering, said that for youth and others coming to Australia, usually with all their savings, it is a big decision that they should think through.

He said in addition to the University fees, students should carry around three to four months of expenditure money which is around AUD 6,000 to 8,000.

He said that rents will be around AUD 1,000 per month for a small unit and food and utilities will be another AUD 1,000.

Dorji said once you get a hang of the place one can use real estate agents to look for places to stay who charge a commission of one week to two weeks to a month’s rent. He said people can also use Google and websites to look for apartments.

In terms of jobs, Dorji said that students are not allowed to work until they get enrolled in their University and start taking classes and the numbers of hours depends on the visa conditions.

He said that one can get jobs either by word of mouth through Bhutanese there, or the other option to to look up local job websites like seek.com.au and others like Jora, Gumntree, LinkedIn etc. A simple Google search for such sites will throw up many more options.

Tshewang of ABPI said that in 80 to 90 percent of the cases Bhutanese get jobs in Australia through word of mouth. He said some friends may say how skilled a particular person they know is and then that person gets hired. He said at the same time people must spruce up and put their resumes out there and make an effort to get jobs.

Australia Reality check and challenges

On advice for Bhutanese wanting to come to Australia, Dorji struck a very somber note.

“I think coming to Australia is a very big decision and don’t go by some Facebook posts or pictures on social media. You need to be willing to work very hard and sweat it out and also need to have a lot of grit, determination and courage as you will be leaving behind your family, your wife and kids,” said Dorji. 

The Australia story is not all rosy as while many do well, there are those who struggle and some have even gone back to Bhutan unable to cope there.

Contrary to the common perception in Bhutan, Bhutanese in Australia are engaged in a variety of professions which are from white collar ones like University Professors, Engineers, Architects, to those with their own businesses to those doing blue collar jobs. There is a growing trend of Bhutanese who graduate and actually put their qualifications to work, and some who come skilled from Bhutan and join white collar jobs after a few courses or internships to adapt themselves to the system in Australia.

One of the major things that Bhutanese have to be prepared for is a major cultural shift. Dorji said that the work culture is very professional and one has to be on their toes and 9 to 5 means 9 to 5. “You have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s. The society is very good but different, and Bhutanese youngsters are able to adapt very quickly,” said Dorji.

Dorji said that there are challenges too. “If you are a casual employee your company may require you to work 5 days a week but after 4 or 5 months you may get a call saying you are no longer needed. Then you wonder what you can do,” he said.

The cost of living in Australia, which is already high compared to Bhutan, is also going up as part of the global inflationary pressures.

Dorji said that a challenge is also to balance work and studies, and one has to be able to juggle both these balls.

He said those students not attending classes or being truant can be sent to the immigration department by the University.

When asked if Bhutanese in Australia face racism in the context of a viral video a few years ago of an elderly Bhutanese man delivering food being sprayed with water, Dorji said that every society and country has its rotten apples be it in Australia, Bhutan, India or others, but he said the society in general is wonderful and generous.

In terms of deportations anyone not complying with the visa conditions or those engaging in criminal activities can be deported.

On Bhutanese choosing to settle there, Dorji said that the driving factor is kids and their education and opportunities. He said while Australia has a lot of freedoms it also comes with a lot more responsibility with very strict laws, regulations and also unwritten codes and cultural expectations.

State of the Australian Economy and jobs

With so many Bhutanese going there and living there, one pertinent worry is the state of the Australian economy, especially with global uncertainty and slowing global growth rates.

Dorji said that the Australian economy is doing very well as it is a very resilient economy. He said it has one of lowest unemployment rate in the last 40 years.

However, here, Dorji said that what really matters are heart and determination and if a person is lazy or careless then they will still not do well.

The Ambassador affirmed that the economy is doing well and there is a huge demand for both skilled and unskilled workers with a record low unemployment of 3.5 percent.

The Ambassador said that Australia is looking for people with skills in the IT sector, engineers, health care and nursing, child care etc which are all in big demand.

He said Bhutanese do all sorts of jobs. When they come for the first time they start with mainly blue collar jobs, but since Bhutanese have been coming here for a decade now they are in a whole range of jobs including highly qualified ones.

Tshewang said that for students starting out there are jobs as house keeping in hotels, age care, disability support and other areas.

Tshewang said there is a crisis of the lack of workers in Perth in almost every sector and so there are job opportunities.

Tshewang said that it always better to come with skills or acquire the skills. He said his friends started with hospitality industry jobs for three to four years and are now engineers in a major Australian company.

Sharing his own experience as an electrical engineer, he said he had to do certificate courses and internship programs as not all his skills were relevant to Australia, and he now works as an Organizer in a major company.

Tshewang said that around 70 percent of Bhutanese women in Perth have jobs in age care, disability care etc where the women got those jobs after undergoing local courses in Australia.

Special treatment for Bhutanese?

One theory going around in Bhutan is that the reason why so many Bhutanese are able to go to Australia is due to geo-political factors of Bhutan being a friendlier country than certain other options.

However, Dorji said that this is not the case as the Australian Immigration regime is one of most robust regime in the world and every case there is based on merit, and not on geo-politics or nationality.

The Ambassador also debunked this and said that in fact Australia has not had many students coming in for the last two years due to the pandemic and now it has opened up and is welcoming students from countries across the world.

Getting help for students and Bhutanese in Australia

Tshewang Rinzin said that for those Bhutanese students coming to Perth, the Association is planning to have an induction course where volunteers will provide students with information.

He said students should also come to the social events of the association and the community like football tournaments etc to help network.

He said usually people coming already have friends and relatives taking care of them.

Another resource that students can use according to Tshewang is the consultants that the students come through as they would have local offices or focal people in Australia whom the students can also approach.

Tshewang said that any Bhutanese coming to Perth and having problems can always contact the association. He said he is yet to hear of any Bhutanese refusing to help another, and he himself has never refused to help any Bhutanese.

The Presidents of both the Perth and Canberra Associations said that while most Bhutanese coming in already have relatives and friends to guide them they can approach the associations and its members for help and also use the facebook pages of these associations to seek help or information be it about renting places or looking for jobs.

Dorji said that when Bhutanese in Australia face medical emergencies or other issues then the Bhutanese Associations and community is always ready to help. “We all get together and coming together in amazing ways,” he said.

Transport and housing

In terms of Transport Tshewang recommends that people buy a cheap second hand car at first as using public transportation will not suit doing part time jobs at odd hours like 7 am in the morning etc.

He said that in terms of housing compared to three years ago the housing situation in Perth has become more tight as a lot of people have moved into Perth, but this is a temporary problem and the situation is expected to improve once more supply comes in.

Better ease of doing business in Australia compared to Bhutan

He said a major difference between the two countries is the ease of doing business. He said as a Bhutanese citizen in Bhutan, it took him two years to get his education consultancy license, but as a foreigner in Australia he could get a license within 3 days.

He also said that he took 6 to 7 months to get a construction license in Bhutan and the license requires one to have one’s own trucks and equipment when one can easily hire the same equipment and instead use the capital to improve the business.

He said in Bhutan he would have to keep following up multiple times and the officials would usually be busy in meetings or out of office.

The youth unemployment factor pushing youth out of Bhutan

When asked why he thinks so many Bhutanese youths are heading to Australia, Tshewang said that during the pandemic around 18,000 Bhutanese across the world moved back to Bhutan and with youth employment already around 21 percent this is another around 18,000 unemployed youth and so he said there are around 40,000 youth in the job market in Bhutan and so this is a major factor.

He said people who also moved from Australia to Bhutan during the pandemic are also coming back.

Bhutanese will come back from Australia

However, Tshewang said that while Bhutanese moving to Australia looks like a one-way traffic now it will become an almost equal two-way traffic in another three to four years.

He said the trend of Bhutanese moving in large numbers to Australia began in 2017 but the visas issued there are only for around five to six years and once that runs out then people will have to come back.

He said then there are Bhutanese like him who even though have got PR want to come back.

“For any Bhutanese of my age (43) the heart is where the home is and this will be true for around 99.99 percent of them. In the next 5 to 10 years around 90 percent will be returning back. People are staying back right now mainly due to their kids who are yet to graduate or for their sake,” he said.

Tsewang said that he would like to come back and do business as there are a lot of opportunities in Bhutan, and perhaps more than in Australia.

Tshewang said that instead of having a rigid civil service system the system should be made flexible to hire skilled Bhutanese coming back on contract for three to five years so that they can contribute.

When asked if he will not miss the better health system in Australia, Tshewang said that one’s health is in one’s hands by watching what one eats and does, and this is the same anywhere in the word.

On the education front he said the education system in Bhutan will change for the better in the future.

The Ambassador Sonam Tobgay said the intention of most Bhutanese is to work and return back to Bhutan and there is a great love for Bhutan with people sending back a lot of money to help family members and also invest in property.

He said that Bhutanese are also buying houses and real estate in Australia, which is not only shelter, but also an investment that will appreciate in value and something that they can sell while coming back. 

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