Opinion: The tyranny of Idi Amin — and the limits of a British welcome

Five decades after the first evacuation flight of Ugandan Asians landed in the UK on September 18, 1972, their story has been touted as a triumph of British generosity and migratory success.

In early August 1972, Uganda’s brutal military dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population, including my grandparents. An estimated 55,000 to 80,000 Ugandan Asians were given 90 days to leave, with just one suitcase and £50 each in their name (the limit of what they were allowed to leave the country).
Although only a small minority of the population, Asians dominated Uganda’s economy. They had also been favored above the Ugandans in the colonial hierarchy, sowing the seeds of discontent.
My grandparents – British passport holders from India – were among an estimated 28,000 Ugandan Asians who fled to the UK, and thousands also settled in Canada, India and elsewhere in the world .

During their final weeks in Uganda, my grandparents Rachel and Philip cried when the new owners took away their beloved dog, an Alsatian named Simba. Their cat was shot by a neighbor who had long considered it a nuisance. Recent trips to Entebbe airport have for many been marred by harassment, violence and thefts at military checkpoints. But my family made it through safely, taking one last look at the country they had called home for 19 years.

A British journey

In the late 19th century, British imperial authorities brought indebted laborers from India (a country under British rule) to East Africa to build hundreds of miles of railway from Kenya to Uganda (a British protectorate). These migrant workers then started shops and businesses, while the British administration continued to recruit Indians to work for them.

As for my grandparents, in 1953 they were approached in southern India by a British education official who offered them jobs for maths and science teachers like them in Uganda. They were offered attractive salaries, career opportunities and lifestyles. Two adventurous spirits, they soon began their journey by boat to Mombasa, Kenya, then by train to Kampala, Uganda’s city of seven hills.

In the Kololo district, my mother, her brother and her sister grew up in a bungalow shaded by leafy trees. Life was good for them, with a perfect temperate climate, a lively social scene and a rich educational system.

And a British welcome

But when Amin issued his deportation order, the British government did not intervene. Border controls have been tightened in recent years through two Commonwealth Immigrant Acts, restricting the automatic right of entry. Anti-immigration sentiment was strong – it was the time of politician Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech – and unemployment was high.

Soon after, the government launched what historian Sanjay Patel describes as a “diplomatic offensive”, desperate to resettle people elsewhere. From India to Australia, from Canada to Mauritius, Westminster sent telegrams around the world. By mid-September, Britain had approached over 50 governments to try to reduce the number they had to take themselves.

Prince Philip meets Ugandan Asians at a British reception center in Kent, November 1972.
Surprisingly, politicians even floated the idea of ​​sending the expellees to remote islands including the Solomon and Falkland Islands. Or offer payments of £2,000 in return for a trip to India and giving up the right to live in Britain.
Councilors in the English city of Leicester went so far as to publish a now notorious advert in Ugandan newspaper Argus warning people not to travel, which the city’s current mayor said he was “deeply ashamed of”. “In your own interests and those of your family, you should not come to Leicester,” it read.
There has also been a deliberate shift in rhetoric aimed at reframing the migration of legitimate passport holders from a post-colonial responsibility to a refugee crisis – making Ugandan Asians the responsibility of the global community, not just Britain. . When Edward Heath’s government reluctantly accepted responsibility, the volunteers were placed at the heart of the resettlement programme, portraying the exodus as a humanitarian crisis.
Meat porters from Smithfield Market in London march to the Houses of Parliament to protest against the planned influx of Ugandan Asians, September 1972.

Growing up, I never identified as a child of refugees – and as British passport holders, by definition, my family and most deportees were not. But many people within the Ugandan Asian community describe themselves that way, perhaps partly because the experience of displacement lends itself to that feeling, but I think also because they were made to feel that way.

Arriving at Heathrow Airport in London in November 1972, in light clothing unsuitable for wintering away from the equator, my family was welcomed into the village house of an English family, before moving into a house provided by a Methodist church. Empty, but fully furnished, it had everything it needed to start over, thanks to the generosity of strangers.

The writer's family outside a church in Cambridge, UK, after leaving Uganda in 1972. Lucy's grandmother Rachel, centre, wears a donated fur coat.

A rags-to-riches story

Starting over became the root of the success story indelibly linked to Ugandan Asians ever since, a politician-pedaled rags-to-riches odyssey in which Britain opened its arms wide. In this 50th anniversary year, some coverage has been lacking for such accounts, and many in the community themselves buy into them.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron called Ugandan Asians “one of the most successful immigrant groups in the history of the world”, a heritage of which many British Ugandan Asians are rightly proud. Their members have gone on to run multinational companies, become community leaders and have served in the House of Lords. But by portraying them as a model minority, it reiterates “good immigrant” tropes and offers justification to criticize any migrant who falls below arbitrary standards.

This year, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted that “the whole country can be proud of the way the UK has welcomed people fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda… This country is hugely generous to people fleeing in fear for their lives and will continue to be so.”

Immigration in 2022

But 50 years later, the UK government now oversees some of the toughest immigration policies on record – from attempting to process asylum seekers abroad in Rwanda to passing the Nationality Act and the borders, which allows the British to be despoiled. of their citizenship without notice and asylum seekers to be criminalized depending on how they arrived in the country.

While Ugandan Asians had a pre-existing right to settle in the UK, everyone has the right to asylum from persecution in other countries, as my family was able to do.

Far from a warm welcome, the reality was that a state that had previously directly recruited my Indian grandparents to work for them attempted to render them stateless. The boundaries of the 1972 UK welcome were twisted to serve political purposes. The current official stance on immigration cannot rationally be described as “overwhelmingly generous”.

The Ugandan Asians journey shows that we need to celebrate individuals who stand up and make a difference, and not let others take credit for their efforts – both then and now.

The author wishes to identify certain members of the family by their first names.


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