Collateral Damages?

Bhutanese abroad eager to return home

Amidst a significant trend of emigration in search of better opportunities, a notable desire exists among many Bhutanese living abroad to return and contribute to their homeland. Nearly 99% of respondents expressed a longing to eventually come back, with no intentions of permanent settlement overseas. However, the prospect of returning is not without its challenges, as shared by individuals grappling with concerns over acceptance and opportunities back home.

The plight of Tashi Norbu, who had to resign from his role as a research and development manager at a State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) due to complexities in availing extraordinary leave (EOL) for further studies, highlights systemic issues. Now pursuing a master’s in renewable and sustainable energy in Perth, Australia, Tashi laments the lack of recognition and support for professional development back home. He emphasizes the stark contrast in work culture abroad, where clear goals and immediate feedback foster a more rewarding work environment.

Tashi parted ways from his 8-year long tryst as a research and development manager to pursue his dream of upgrading his qualification. He said that despite his dedication and seniority, there was no recognition from the organization. “They made it so difficult for me to avail EOL that I had to resign.”

Forgetting all bygone years, however, he hopes that a background in chemical engineering and his ongoing master’s will open up some scope for him to return and serve his country after the completion of his course this June. “I am thinking about staying here until post-study visa but have no long-term aspirations to settle. What is more important are opportunities back home,” he wrote to this paper.

Tashi did not shy away from pointing out the loopholes in the policies hampering study leave and all. “It might differ from organization to companies but back home we are expected to perform and get the result but we lack authority to decide which impedes obtaining resources. So it becomes difficult to work as you climb the career ladder. Here in Australia, they give you clear goals, timeline, quality of work and then it is audited and verified. If we have done good work they praise immediately and if there are shortcomings, you are made liable instantly.”

Sonam Norbu, a Bhutanese resident in Canada since 2017, voices uncertainty regarding the reception he might receive upon returning. “Will my former organization, the then MoLHR, welcome me back after my time in Canada?” he ponders. This sentiment echoes among many, especially professionals like teachers and doctors, whose skills are in high demand yet face potential barriers from regulatory bodies.

“We are a couple and I am confident there are others like us from various places around the world. Teachers and Doctors are especially welcome as their positions often entail a shorter duration in our country. It would be unfair if the RCSC or the government is to disallow us.”

Similarly, Sangay Dorji, studying for a master’s in Electrical and Renewable Energy in Australia, advocates for policies allowing Bhutanese who resign or take EOL for studies to rejoin their original positions upon return. This sentiment underscores a widespread belief in the value of international experience, countered by apprehensions about reintegration into the Bhutanese workforce.

“Not all come here for money, and even if they come for money they don’t come here by hating Bhutan. I am sure every single person over here loves our motherland,” he said. “If given the chance I will return. Of course, money is better here, to be frank. But money is not everything. We have kids and family and old parents back home,” he added.

“I came here because it was high time to upgrade my qualification with age. I hold a Degree in Mechanical Engineering. I came here for electrical as I was very much interested. I didn’t have any money and they didn’t grant me EOL, so I had to resign. It is not possible through any other means than self-finance to pursue my dream since Ausaid is only for the privileged lot,” Sangay reaffirmed.

On coming back, he said that he wishes to join DGPC and serve in better positions like DHyE. “I have a good amount of experience in projects. But the question is will they take us back? Many of our managements are not so accommodating to new ideas and new brains. Personally, I got a lot of exposure and education from here.” “Even if some have realized that they have made bad decisions they must be welcomed. We cry every time we listen to His Majesty’s address,” he opined.

Given an opportunity, Tshering Norbu, pursuing his master’s in counseling in Brisbane, said that he would definitely love to rejoin his previous job with his new skills and knowledge. He had to quit his job as a school counselor because by the time he got his visa, it was already late to seek EOL.

“I think the experience and exposure I gain during my stay here would make me do better because staying here makes us more resilient conscious,” he asserted.

Going outside to work leaving his motherland was never a dream but a necessity without any choice for Tshering Nima, an executive engineer whose contract was terminated unconditionally. He was working for one of the hydroelectric projects in the country but when the project didn’t function as intended, he claims that his employment was terminated.

Now pursuing his masters in project management, Tshering says that he hasn’t decided whether to return or not, but possibly “my heart lies to serve my motherland once again”.

Another resolute Bhutanese in Canberra, 26-year-old Sangay Zangmo said that she will be coming back after 7 years having invested millions to pursue her Australian dream. She feels it is not necessary to take back the same job, but to explore opportunities and putting hard work back home with a changed mindset is what everyone at home is wishing for. “Our experience and expertise will immensely benefit the respective organization and ultimately the people and the country,” she said.

“I am quite sure that people returning from Australia understand very well how to give a fair (or even more) day’s work for a fair day’s wage. So, one is expected to work harder and more seriously after returning from abroad, particularly from Australia,” Sangay resonated the sentiments of other Bhutanese abroad as well.

A former teacher who is now in Brisbane undergoing his master’s program, Yeshi Dorji said, “If the working environment becomes better, I might rejoin the fraternity. Of course, I miss my country, the livelihood, a less but happy life.”

The narratives of Yeshi Dorji, Tshering Norbu, and Sangay Zangmo further illustrate the diverse reasons driving Bhutanese to pursue education and careers abroad, ranging from personal development to financial necessity. Despite the lure of better compensation overseas, the underlying desire to contribute to Bhutan’s development remains strong.

Meanwhile, a large number of Bhutanese workers have migrated since 2022, and thousands have plans to migrate. The average number of those migrating increased significantly to more than 5,000 a month in early 2023, compared with less than 500, on average, one month prior to the pandemic. One out of 10 not in education, employment, or training (NEET) individuals plans to migrate abroad.

By Tashi Namgyal, Thimphu