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

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.

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 only one suitcase and £50 each to their name (the limit of what they were allowed to leave the country with).
Although a small minority of the population, Asians dominated Uganda’s economy. Even Ugandans were favored in the colonial hierarchy, sowing the seeds of discord.
My grandparents — British passport holders from India — were among some 28,000 Ugandan Asians who fled to the UK, with thousands also settling in Canada, India and elsewhere around the world.

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.

British route

At the end of the 20th century, British imperial authorities brought indentured laborers from India (a British colony) to East Africa to build hundreds of kilometers of railway from Kenya to Uganda (a British protectorate). These migrant workers later set up shops and businesses, and the British administration continued to recruit Indians to work for them.

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

But when Amin ordered the expulsion, the British government did not jump into action. Border controls have been tightened in recent years through two Commonwealth immigration laws, limiting the automatic right of entry. Anti-immigration sentiment was strong — it was the time of politician Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech — and unemployment was high.

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.

Prince Philip meets Ugandan Asians at a British reception center in Kent, November 1972.
Surprisingly, politicians also floated the idea of ​​sending deportees to remote islands including the Solomon and Falkland Islands. Or offering £2,000 payments in exchange for traveling to India and giving up the right to live in Britain.
Councilors in the English city of Leicester went so far as to take out a popular advert in Uganda’s Argus newspaper warning people not to travel, the city’s current mayor has said he is “shameful”. “In your own interests and in the interests of your family, you should not … come to Leicester,” it said.
There was also a deliberate shift in rhetoric, seeking to frame 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 the responsibility, volunteers were placed at the heart of the resettlement program, presenting the exodus as a humanitarian crisis.
Meat porters from London's Smithfield Market marched on the Houses of Parliament to protest the arrival of Asians from Uganda in September 1972.

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.

The writer's family outside a church in Cambridge, United Kingdom, after leaving Uganda in 1972.  Lucy's grandmother Rachel, center, wears a fur coat given to her.

A rags to riches tale

Starting from scratch has since become the root of the success story associated with Ugandan Asians, a rags-to-riches odyssey pedaled by politicians that Britain welcomed with open arms. On this 50th anniversary, some coverage has been given to such narratives, and many in the community buy into it.

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.

Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson this year boasted that “the whole country can be proud of the way the UK has welcomed people fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda… This country has been and will continue to be incredibly generous to people fleeing in fear of their lives.” has.”

Immigration in 2022

But fast-forward 50 years and the UK government is now overseeing some of the harshest immigration policies on record: from attempts to process asylum seekers offshore in Rwanda to passing the Nationality and Borders Act which allows the removal of British citizens. without warning of their citizenship and criminalizing asylum seekers based on how they arrived in the country.

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 journey of Asians in Uganda shows that we need to celebrate people who stand up and make a difference, and not let others take credit for their efforts, then and now.

The writer wants to identify some family members by name.