Refugee Crossings: Everyday Geographies of Nepali-Bhutani Encampment and Resettlement

Date of Award

December 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Susan S. Wadley


Bhutanese Refugee Camp, Critical Refugee Studies, Refugee Resettlement, Rustbelt cities, South Asian borderlands, Syracuse, New York

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation is an ethnographic exploration of how refugee encampment in the Global South mediates the experience of arrival and resettlement in the Global North. Expelled in the early 1990s for being a religious and linguistic minority in Drukpa-Buddhist-dominated Bhutan, Nepali-Bhutani refugees had resided in refugee camps in Nepal for decades, only being resettled in the United States, Australia, and Europe since 2007. Based on fourteen months of multi-sited and transnational fieldwork towards the tail-end of the United Nations-led resettlement project, my research follows a group of Nepali-Bhutani families as they move through the nodes of the resettlement trail: from the Beldangi refugee camp in Eastern Nepal, to the liminal sites of the International Organization for Migration’s transit center in Kathmandu and the flight from Nepal to New York (via Abu Dhabi), and finally, to Syracuse, where nearly 3,000 Nepali-Bhutani refugees now reside. While most ethnographies on refugees have focused on either the camp or resettlement site, this study is among the first to analyze the entire process of resettlement—from camp to city—and traces the fissures and continuities between fringe South Asian countries such as Nepal and Bhutan, and post-industrial United States, spaces that are typically considered geopolitically and culturally disparate.

By capturing the process of resettlement through the terms by which refugees themselves understand it, this study does the following: first, it challenges the nation-state centric territorial logic of the United Nation’s “durable solution” by pointing to the ways that the Nepali-Bhutani community has negotiated the India-Nepal-Bhutan “borderlands”; second, it recasts refugee camps as future-oriented spaces where specific imaginaries of U.S. refuge circulate; and, third, it illustrates the creative refugee negotiations of humanitarian aid and state welfare that indicate how camp habitus continues to reshape neighborhoods in rustbelt Syracuse. As a multi-sited transnational ethnography, this dissertation challenges a before-and-after logic of relocation, revealing both how the process of refugee resettlement starts long before Nepali-Bhutani refugees arrive in the United States, and how the daily configurations of post-resettlement life demonstrate continuous links between Beldangi and Syracuse. The teleological narrative of resettlement that measures refugee success by counting when and how refugees become permanent residents and citizens of the resettling country often neglects complex refugee positionality in the United States and the new forms of subjectivity it creates. By examining refugee resettlement practices along a continuum that links camps and resettlement sites as a single unit of analysis, this dissertation provides new frameworks to capture the transnational and emergent complexities of refugee resettlement.


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