Five decades after the first evacuation flight of Ugandan Asians in the UK on 18 September 1972, their story has emerged as a triumph of British generosity and successful migration.
During the last few weeks in Uganda, my grandparents Rachel and Philip cried when their new owners took their beloved dog, an Alsatian named Simba. Their cat was shot and killed by a neighbor who had long believed it to be a nuisance. For many, the last trip to Entebbe airport was met with harassment, violence and robbery at military checkpoints. But my family made it safely through, taking one last look at the country they called home for 19 years.
As for my grandparents, in 1953 they were approached by a British education officer in southern India offering 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) and by train to Kampala, a city in seven hills in Uganda.
In Kololo district, my mother, her brother and sister grew up in a bungalow shaded by leafy trees. Life was good for them, perfect warm weather, a bustling social scene and a rich education system.
And a British welcome
Soon after, the government began what historian Sanjay Patel describes as a “diplomatic offensive” in an attempt to relocate people elsewhere. From India to Australia, Canada to Mauritius, Westminster sent telegrams all over the world. By mid-September, Britain had approached more than 50 governments to try to reduce the numbers they had to take in.
Growing up, I never identified as the child of refugees, and as a British passport holder, by definition, my family and the majority of deportees were not. But a lot of people in the Asian community in Uganda describe themselves that way, maybe partly because the experience of displacement makes them feel that way, but I think it’s also because they were made to feel that way.
Arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport in November 1972, in light clothing not suitable for winter far from the equator, my family was welcomed in the country house of an English family, before moving on to a house provided by a Methodist church. Empty, but fully stocked, it had everything they needed to start over, thanks to the generosity of strangers.
A rags to riches tale
Former Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to Ugandan Asians as “one of the most successful immigrant groups of any group in the history of the world”, a legacy of which many British Asians in Uganda are justifiably proud. Their members went on to run multinational businesses, become community leaders and sit in the House of Lords. But taken as a model minority, it repeats the “good immigrant” trope and provides a justification for criticizing migrants who fall under arbitrary standards.
Immigration in 2022
While Ugandan Asians have a prior right to settle in the UK, they all have a right to asylum from persecution in other countries, as my family was able to do.
Far from a gracious welcome, the reality was that a state that had previously recruited my grandparents directly from India to work for them had tried to make them stateless. The British reception limits of 1972 have been twisted for political purposes. The current official immigration stance cannot rationally be described as “outrageous generosity”.
The writer wants to identify some family members by name.