Bhutan’s jobs woes drive an exodus to Australia

The Buddha Dordenma statue overlooks the town of Thimphu, Bhutan, April 16, 2016.Reuters

The reopening of Australia’s borders to international students after the pandemic has triggered an exodus from Bhutan, as young people seek opportunities abroad amid growing economic unhappiness in the landlocked Himalayan kingdom.

Student migration to Australia from Bhutan has soared, with over 12,000 long-term arrivals moving there in the 11 months to May alone, representing about 1.5 per cent of the tiny South Asian country’s population, which has a youth unemployment rate in the double digits.

Most of the recent arrivals have settled in Perth, Western Australia, where they have enrolled in courses such as childcare, hospitality and accounting.

Tashi Kipchu, a 25-year-old education consultant, is one of many who came to Australia last year in search of better opportunities.

“Right after COVID, everything died. People don’t see an opportunity out there,” said Kipchu, who studied marketing at the University of Western Australia.

Aside from a small humanitarian intake, migration from Bhutan to Australia had been negligible until 2017 when student arrivals started to pick up. That accelerated after the reopening of borders in Australia in 2022, with official data showing student visa applications from Bhutan jumping fivefold in the fiscal year ended June.

The influx of students in that short period has made Australia home to one of the largest communities of Bhutanese expatriates outside of South Asia.

While they represent just a small part of Australia’s 600,000 international student population, the surge comes as the A$40 billion ($27 billion) education sector tries to make up for business lost from a dearth of foreign students during the pandemic. Students from key market China, in particular, are returning at a slower pace than hoped.

“Australian universities are keen to diversify - they got the message from the previous and this government that they shouldn’t rely too much on just China, India and Nepal,” said Phil Honeywood, Chief Executive Officer at International Education Association of Australia.

“They need to go forth and find new education agents in new countries.”

Sonam Tobgay, who became Bhutan’s inaugural ambassador to Australia in 2021, said Australia’s appeal includes its relatively cheaper tuition fees and favourable visa regime that allows students’ dependents to come and work for unlimited hours.

Six of the current 10 cabinet ministers of Bhutan have qualifications from an Australian university or institute.

Bhutan is famous for its Gross National Happiness index, an economic gauge that takes into account factors ignored by the conventional gross domestic product measures, such as recreation, emotional well-being and the environment.

However, its mostly closed economy, which is largely dependent on hydropower and tourism, has more recently been hurt by high energy prices, leading to a sharp fall in its foreign reserves.

Moreover, the government’s reforms of the public sector, designed to streamline and modernise the civil service, the country’s biggest employer, have also contributed to a mass exodus of working professionals.

Wedged between India and China, Bhutan reopened its borders in September, but higher tourist taxes have meant the recovery in the critical industry has not lived up to expectations. Youth unemployment hit 28 per cent last year.

Amid bleak job prospects at home, many young people flocked to Australia, which has loosened visa restrictions to help ease its tightest labour market in 50 years.

Kipchu, who originally trained as a chemical engineer in Bhutan, saw a business opportunity soon after arriving in Perth and started an education consultancy to help prospective students from Bhutan. Now his company employs 40-50 people in his home country.

“I came to Australia to study but somehow this country gave me an opportunity,” said Kipchu, predicting that the trend of moving to Australia will continue.

“The job opportunities and the flexibility for students to work here makes it more attractive.”

At Kingston International College, a vocational education provider in Western Australia, about 150 Bhutanese students receive training, said managing director Tandin Dorji, himself a Bhutanese migrant. That compared with just 15-20 before the pandemic.

“It has become a cultural trend... If Bhutanese see someone being really successful, that’s where they would go,” said Dorji.