East to West

The History of
Ugandan Asians

Ugandan Asian refugees at Plasterdown Camp Dartmoor, Devon (1972)

“June 11, 2023 by Fiyaz Mughal”

In the last year, since the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Ugandan Asians in 1972, the issue of trauma has slowly raised itself. This has not been because there is an honesty in some of the projects that have marked the 50th anniversary around the expulsion of Ugandan Asians and the issue of trauma. Some of these projects have sought to play up the ‘gratitude’ to Britain for letting Ugandan Asians in. There is no doubt that there is much to be grateful to Britain for, but trying to oversimplify the role of Britain in the ‘taking in’ of Ugandan Asians in 1972, is just part of the complex picture. The fact is that if it was not for Empire and the need for cheap labour, Ugandan Asians would not have been in East Africa. Additionally, British Overseas Citizens in Uganda were also treated as second class citizens, even though they had made the decision to be part of Queen and Country at the time. Their entry was stalled, slowed down and in the end, they were finally let in. So, yes, there is much to be thankful for to Britain, but let’s not kid ourselves that all has been well then and ever since.

There are clearly those of Ugandan Asians heritage that have a vested interest in playing up to British institutions, which in doing so, gives them a sense of identity and grandeur. There is no doubt that Britain does institutions well and we must value and defend these core elements that make up our society. Yet, it is the voices of the vast majority of arrivals of Ugandan Asian heritage who are still not heard. Those who suffered fear, anxiety, prejudice, broken dreams and overwhelming feelings of losing everything in Uganda that they have never managed to get back.

One of the over-riding memories that I have in working through the ‘From East to West’ project has been the sense of pervasive fear that many women who arrived in 1972 have felt and how that manifested itself in the behaviour and fears that they had with their children and which were sometimes projected onto them. For example, some of them talked about ‘fearing for the safety of their children’, making repetitive calls to find out where they were when they went out and ‘catastrophising’. The latter is thinking that the worst has happened to their children because they are late coming home. (Catastrophising is an underlying element for anxiety disorders).

Their children also talked about ‘feeling constricted’, and ‘controlled’ as though their parents were seeking a form of control and that this over-focus on control had come from somewhere. It is therefore quite possible that the trauma of the expulsion and the resettlement into another country caused some Ugandan Asians to develop a greater sense for the need for control, order and to manage their fears. For some, they thought that this behaviour was normal and young people also mentioned that they knew no different and they assumed it was what parents did.

The sad fact is that much of the trauma that many felt was never addressed, managed and worked through. It has found itself tenticalised into subtle behaviours and actions. At the very least, future projects should seek to document these issues in more detail and have a frankness and honesty that starts with having difficult discussions and not thinking about how to maintain the status quo of – ‘look how lucky we are because Britain took us in’. The ‘From East to West’ project has tried to start these conversations. We hope they may continue.