About the Author: Kristin Haworth serves in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.
Today, the 40,000th Bhutanese refugee departs Nepal. The plane she is on is headed to the United States, where some 34,000 Bhutanese refugees have already settled. We here in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) are especially excited about this milestone because for nearly two decades, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese refugees from Bhutan have been living in camps administered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in southeastern Nepal. Ethnic tensions and Bhutanese government policies in the late 1980s and early 1990s caused them to flee. The number of Bhutanese refugees living in camps reached a peak of about 108,000 in 2007.
In late 2007, when the possibility of refugees' return to Bhutan seemed increasingly unlikely, the United States offered to consider for resettlement as many Bhutanese refugees as expressed interest, with the cooperation of the Nepali government. To date, about 34,000 have been resettled across the United States, the third largest group currently being resettled under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. Others have gone to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
The resettlement program is an example of how the U.S. government works with the international community to develop humane and durable solutions for people living in refugee settings. In humanitarian assistance-speak, a “durable solution” is a long-term, viable solution to a refugee situation. In most cases, this means either the voluntary return of refugees to their home country (if it is safe enough to go back), or integration within the country of asylum. PRM works through diplomatic channels to encourage host governments to protect refugees and provides assistance through programs that promote refugee self-sufficiency and community-based social services. In less than 1 percent of refugee cases, the best durable solution is resettlement to a third country. PRM coordinates the admission of these refugees when they are referred by UNHCR for resettlement in the United States.
Once in the United States, what can a newly arrived refugee expect? Bhutanese refugees Bal and Meena Rai were resettled to the United States in 2008 after having lived for 17 years in a bamboo hut in a refugee camp. Since starting their lives in the United States with the assistance of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) they've learned to navigate a new culture, find jobs, and master the home-buying process in Abilene, Texas. The Department of State's Reception and Placement Program supplies the 10 resettlement agencies in its public-private partnership program (including IRC) a one-time sum of $1,800 per refugee to defray a refugee's costs during the first few weeks. Using these funds and others obtained through fundraising efforts, the voluntary organizations provide support for housing, job searches, and educational workshops to help refugees become self-sufficient as quickly as possible after their arrival to the United States.
After years in a refugee camp, the transition to life in a new country isn't easy. But thanks to the generosity of the American people, refugees from Bhutan and many other countries from around the world have found sanctuary in the United States.