August 12, 2022 by Saima Nassar
Fifty years ago, they fled persecution to the UK; the legacy is that it marked a moment of generosity to refugees, but the real story is different
On Aug. 4, 1972, President Idi Amin of Uganda addressed the Airborne Regiment in Tororo, a town in the Eastern region of the country. He accused the country’s South Asian population of dominating trade and industry, labeling them a “self-segregating community of bloodsuckers that had sabotaged the economy and encouraged corruption.”
Within days of this speech, Amin signed a decree that called for all South Asians to leave the country within just 90 days. He claimed that the estimated 80,000 South Asians in Uganda had been encouraged to settle there by the former imperial powers and that they were therefore Britain’s responsibility. Approximately 28,500 Ugandan Asians relocated to Britain before the November deadline.
As we in Britain begin to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan Asian expulsion, you would not know that in fact the vast majority of these exiles were British passport holders. This was no “refugee crisis.” It involved migration from one country to another, as this community had done before.
It is tempting to consider the history of Britain’s Ugandan Asians as a successful “rags to riches” tale. Leaving behind their profitable businesses and their possessions, armed with little more than 50 British pounds (a little more than $100 at the time) they sought safety in a new country. The Observer notes that “in a remarkable story of triumph, those penniless refugees are now Britain’s most successful immigrant community.” To offer a handful of examples: The investment banker and former government minister Shriti Vadera was the first woman to head a major British bank, Santander. The businessman and philanthropist Rumi Verjee founded the Domino’s Pizza franchise in the U.K., partially owned Watford F.C. alongside singer Elton John and is currently a member of the House of Lords. Meanwhile, author and journalist Yasmin Ali-Bhai Brown and award-winning photographer Zarina Bhimja have made significant contributions to Britain’s arts and culture. In politics, there are high-profile figures such as the U.K.’s current home secretary, Priti Patel.
It is within this context that Britain’s response has been celebrated as demonstrating great generosity. Yet little is said about Britain’s attempts to prevent Ugandan Asians from coming to Britain, legal cases submitted to the European Commission of Human Rights or the newspaper advertisements taken out to warn Ugandan Asians not to settle in Leicester, even though these people were British passport holders. To say that Ugandan Asians were readily and warmly welcomed in 1970s Britain would be to offer a distorted history of immigration and asylum. While Ugandan Asians have no doubt shaped Britain’s economic, political, and sociocultural landscapes, it is important to avoid celebratory narratives that overlook histories of struggle and discrimination.
To understand the history of immigration in Britain requires taking into account a diversity of experiences and weighing the various challenges faced by migrants and the obstacles they had to overcome. In particular, the politics of representation can reveal how, when and why migration narratives are told. Nowhere is this more significant than in the “refugee narratives” of Britain’s Ugandan Asian population, who have been variously described as imperial subjects, refugees and, more recently, as model migrants.
The growth of South Asian communities in Uganda was first encouraged by British imperial authorities in the 1890s, when they were recruited as indentured laborers to work on the country’s railway. While the majority of them returned to India, approximately 6,700 stayed in East Africa and urged others to join them. With steady migration thereafter, Ugandan Asians formed a wealthy mercantile class. They owned dukas (shops), factories and sugar cane plantations, and dominated a wide range of industries. However, they quickly gained a reputation as exploitative traders. Racially segregated housing laws offered limited opportunities for cross-cultural interactions and did nothing to address deep racial tensions. South Asians came to occupy a middle tier in the colonial hierarchy and were thus widely considered as a colonial comprador class.
In order to close the gap between South Asians and Black Ugandans, Africanization policies were introduced to allow the Black majority population to exercise greater control over the economy and government. This was due, in part, to the fact that when Ugandan Asians were given the choice between Ugandan and British passports following Ugandan independence in 1962, many opted for British, banking on relocating to Britain if the need arose. As tensions heightened in Uganda, work permits and trade licenses were introduced in 1969, which served to restrict the activities of such noncitizens. By the time Amin came to power (by way of a military coup) in 1971, South Asians were accused of being disloyal, corrupt and unwilling to integrate. When Amin signed a decree calling for South Asians to leave within 90 days, he claimed that “British Asians were Britain’s responsibility.”
But the British government’s initial response to the expulsion was to delay any migration for as long as possible. It hesitated when it came to accepting any obligation to its passport holders. It reached out to governments in Uganda, India and Pakistan, as well as the wider international community, in an attempt to curtail immigration to Britain. When it became clear that Britain would have to accommodate its global citizens, government officials asked a number of countries, including the Solomon and Falkland Islands, to take in thousands of exiles. This might partly be explained by the timing: there were shortages of housing, growing inflation, the dock strikes and rising unemployment. But there was also the fact that politicians and media of the time were regularly espousing xenophobia and racism. To offer some context, weeks after the expulsion order, on Aug. 25, 1972, the Smithfield meat porters marched in London to the Home Office, where they presented a petition calling for the end to all immigration into Britain. They carried signs stating, “Britain for the British.” Notoriously xenophobic Member of Parliament Enoch Powell said at the time that “people were rightly shocked at the prospect of 50,000 Asians from Uganda being added to our population.” He added: “They have no idea that about 100,000 are added through immigration and natural increase to the colored population of this country every year.”
Indeed, since the 1950s the British government had faced enormous pressure to restrict Black and Asian immigration, resulting in a number of immigration acts. For example, the Commonwealth Immigrants Acts in 1962 and 1968 introduced strict border controls. Those wanting to enter Britain had to apply for a limited number of entry vouchers which were graded against employment prospects. The 1968 Act included a “grandfather” clause, which meant that immigration controls would be extended to anyone without a parent or grandparent who was born in or was a citizen of the U.K. As such, Black and Asian communities were barred from freely entering the U.K. At the time of the expulsion, Ugandan Asians were unclear as to where they would be able to go. They faced a hostile environment and were made to feel unwanted.
When reports of destitution, violence and the murder of Asians in Uganda began to circulate, Britain’s reaction to their displacement quickly altered. National newspapers in Britain came to adopt a more sympathetic tone. The Times warned that “General Amin planned concentration camps for Asians after the deadline” and that it was Britain holding up the exodus. The Daily Telegraph labeled the Asians “Uganda’s Huguenots,” while the Guardian explained how Britain’s quota was keeping “20,000 Asians in ghettos.” A number of news outlets drew upon post-war liberal sentiments, viewing them as “The Jews of East Africa,” including the Sunday Times, which reported:
“The position of the Indians in East Africa grows every day more strictly comparable to that of the Jews in Eastern Europe round the turn of the century. They are the traders whom everyone despises because they are good at trade. Their fate is not yet as terrible, but it can become so at any moment.”
In response to growing pressure from the popular press and campaign groups, British Home Secretary Robert Carr announced that the government was to set up a board to make contingency plans for the smooth and orderly reception of those expelled from Uganda. Accordingly, the Heath government formed the Uganda Resettlement Board (URB) on Aug. 30, 1972, in recognition that Ugandan Asians would be settling, in the URB’s own words, in a “strange country and in a society whose ways were often unfamiliar to them.” Of the estimated 55,000 South Asians who fled Uganda during the 90-day period, approximately 28,500 came to Britain. For the group that arrived between September and November, the URB made arrangements so that they were met at airports and counseled on arrival, and new arrivals were further supported with the provision of housing and temporary financial support from local authorities.
Working with senior members of the Immigration Service, the URB established reception teams at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports. These teams were largely composed of volunteers provided by the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Brigade and the many bodies associated with the Coordinating Committee for the Evacuees of Uganda. Additionally, 16 resettlement centers were opened in various parts of the country, each with a “Resettlement Team,” and commercial caterers appointed to arrange accommodation and to supply meals. These centers were opened with great urgency and received help from many volunteers, including the Community Service Volunteers, the International Voluntary Service, the United Nations Association and Talbot House (also known as Toc H). Four of the biggest resettlement centers were in Stradishall, Greenham Common, Hemswell and Heathfield.
It was at this point that Ugandan Asians began being represented as refugees. In the popular imagination, they were constructed as a community fleeing persecution. Indeed, during this period, Amin was simultaneously depicted as a murderous despot and a political buffoon. The British government and the URB accordingly responded to the expulsion as if it was a refugee crisis, despite the fact that the majority of those expelled were British passport holders.
Ugandan Asians were deemed an educated, worthy group of refugees. As politicians and journalists greeted new arrivals to Britain, they focused on their helplessness and on Britain’s great tradition of voluntary service. No longer were Ugandan Asians viewed as an “immigrant flood” or an “invading group of outsiders.” Instead, Britain’s response was framed as a humanitarian one. This shift in Britain’s response was to some extent a product of Britain’s legal responsibility, but it was also an attempt to protect Britain’s international reputation. News reports of charitable organizations working to support Ugandan Asians dominated public images and served to replace reports about legal cases against Britain submitted to the European Commission of Human Rights.
Yet for Ugandan Asians resettling in Britain during this period, it was, predictably, a difficult time. For many, their destination within Britain was not a choice. In accordance with government policy and in order to ease pressure placed on local authorities by growing numbers of migrant families, policymakers designated certain areas around Britain as either “red” or “green” zones. “Red” zones were areas, such as Leicester, where Britain’s migrant populations were deemed too large. It was decided that further immigration to these areas was to be avoided at all costs. Leicester City Council had, in fact, taken out a full-page advertisement warning Ugandan Asians not to come to the city as there were no jobs or housing. Conversely, “green” zones were areas that did not already have a high concentration of migrant groups. These were areas where Ugandan Asians were encouraged to settle. In practice, the government’s dispersal policies were not necessarily helpful either to Ugandan Asians or local authorities. Although there was a clear aim to ease social pressures on local authorities, government policies meant that areas such as Glasgow, despite its housing shortages, were declared as “green” zones simply because they did not have a large ethnic minority population. Despite this many Ugandan Asians found their own way to “red zone” areas like Birmingham, Leicester and London where they joined their family, friends and existing networks.
The ways in which minorities are remembered define their role in national histories. Britain’s Ugandan Asians were first deemed imperial subjects, then unwanted minorities. After the expulsion, they were reframed as a refugee community that required the support of the British government despite the fact that many had British passports. This served to address popular fears and xenophobic attitudes in Britain relating to Black and Asian migration. Following this reframing, Britain’s response to Ugandan Asians has been celebrated and, to some extent, distorted in order to fit a neat narrative.
The Ugandan Asian case is just one example in a continual history of restrictive immigration policy making in Britain that continues to this day. We need only to look at the most recent reversal of immigration policy whereby the British government revealed its intention to relocate tens of thousands of asylum seekers, this time sending them back from Britain to East Africa, no matter their country of origin. In April of this year, the proposed “Migration and Economic Development Partnership With Rwanda” (MEDPR) set out that vulnerable people, once deported from the U.K., would be prohibited from returning and would need to apply for protection in Rwanda. The policy has, unsurprisingly, been met with fierce opposition from human rights groups and others: The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants labeled the policy “unspeakably cruel.” (Similar agreements made between Israel and Rwanda in 2013 show not just the failure of such policies but also the untold harm they cause: Refugees were detained, beaten and forced to seek out new journeys to safety.)
In the recent case, a last-minute intervention from the European Court for Human Rights has prevented the British government from carrying out any forced relocations. The flight that was due to depart on June 14 was canceled before takeoff, and the legality of the MEDPR will come under judicial scrutiny in September. The British government, however, continues to support its current plans for what it terms “asylum reform.” In doing so, its ambitions have done little to support Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that the U.K. has a “proud history of welcoming people from overseas.”
While Johnson celebrates the U.K. as “a beacon of openness,” a brief glance at its history of immigration policies demonstrates that this is not in fact the first time that Britain has sought out an alternate “refugee island” in an attempt to arguably shirk its international and humanitarian responsibilities. As with the 1972 relocation plans for Ugandan Asians, the plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda have also (so far) failed. But the fact that the same approach is being suggested five decades on teaches us that there is a pattern to U.K. policy. Perhaps we will see a reframing, too, of those we are taking in, and sometime in the future our treatment of those seeking asylum will once again be spun as a success story.
As recent events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan Asian expulsion reveal, migrant communities have enriched Britain and continue to do so. One could argue that if we spent less time fearing migrants and creating illogical, costly and immoral alternative migration routes, we might be able to co-create a vision of Britishness that privileges community and compassion.
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