Skip to main content

The story of the Ugandan Asians inspires us to fight racism

50 years and on the resilience and resourcefulness of Ugandan Asian refugees who settled in my community should encourage us to redesign the asylum system along the principles of solidarity and decency, writes CLAUDIA WEBBE MP

THE identity of my home city of Leicester is forged from a proud history of immigration and welcoming those seeking asylum, with Jewish Russian migrants arriving in the mid-1800s followed by European Jews fleeing persecution and Nazi barbarism in the 1930s.

After the second world war, Leicester welcomed migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. In the late 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Asian refugees arrived from East Africa, notably those fleeing persecution in Uganda, and this century we have hosted refugees and asylum-seekers from all over the world.

This is what makes Leicester special. We are the city where the minorities make up the majority. And we are richer for this vibrant exchange of cultures.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival in Britain of thousands of Ugandan Asians. It is vital that we commemorate the anniversary of the exodus in 1972 of those fleeing the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and also celebrate the contribution the East African Asian community has made to Leicester’s culture and community over the last half a century.

In early August, 1972, Amin ordered the expulsion of his country's Asian minority, giving them just 90 days to leave the country. At the time of the expulsion, there were about 80,000 individuals of Indian descent in Uganda.

The expulsion took place against the backdrop of longstanding anti-Indian racism in Uganda, which Amin whipped up with racist tropes of disloyalty, non-integration and commercial malpractice.

More than half of those set for expulsion had British passports and eventually settled in Britain and several thousand of those started new lives in Leicester. According to the Uganda Resettlement Board over 28,000 Ugandan Asians came to Britain after being expelled by Idi Amin.

Of the other refugees who were accounted for, 6,000 went to Canada, 4,500 refugees ended up in India and 2,500 went to nearby Kenya or Pakistan. Twenty-three thousand Ugandan Asians who had been granted Ugandan citizenship were, after some dispute, permitted to stay — yet many chose to leave rather than endure further intimidation, with only 4,000 known to have stayed.

It is vital that we celebrate the resilience and resourcefulness of those who were displaced and forced to start all over again, far away from home.

The Curve Theatre in Leicester is putting on three plays this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asian refugees in Britain. The plays are being written by three people — Chandni Mistry, Ashok Patel and Dilan Raithatha — whose families and friends were caught up in the expulsions. We need more initiatives such as this, which highlight the experiences of those impacted by this momentous incident.

Yet it is also vital that we understand the history of imperialism, which is central to the historical mistreatment of Ugandan Asians. The presence of South Asians in Uganda was the result of deliberate choices by the British empire, which controlled Uganda between 1894 and 1962.

South Asians were brought to the Uganda Protectorate by the British to, in the words of historian Jan Jelmert Jorgensen, “serve as a buffer between Europeans and Africans in the middle rungs of commerce and administration.”

In addition, in the 1890s, 32,000 labourers from British India were brought to south-east Africa under indentured labour contracts to work on the construction of the Uganda Railway.

Therefore, whilst the forced expulsion of Ugandan Asians was solely due to the cruelty and arbitrary racism of Idi Amin, it is also impossible to understand the forced migration without an appreciation of Britain’s long history of empire.

It is also important to stress that this expulsion of an “ethnic minority” was not the first in Uganda's history as the country’s Kenyan minority, numbering approximately 30,000, had been expelled in 1969–70. We must oppose all forced displacements of people wherever they occurred and learn the lessons from history to prevent further suffering and displacement in our present day.

It is also vital that, whilst we celebrate the Ugandan Asians’ contribution to Leicester and Britain, we recall that their achievements were made in the face of enormous obstacles.

At a national level government ministers launched a secret search to find a suitable island to settle thousands of British Asians living in East Africa to avoid “an intolerable repetition of the recent influx” of Ugandan Asians, cabinet papers published in 2003 by the Public Record Office under the 30-year rule revealed.

The records show that a “deep sense of alarm” developed within the British government, led by Edward Heath, that the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians in August 1972 by the country’s President, Idi Amin, would be swiftly followed by the expulsion of up to 70,000 other British passport holders in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.

The Foreign Office began to scour the remaining British possessions around the globe, from Bermuda to the Virgin Islands, for a “suitable island with enough space to serve as a place of settlement for British passport holders long enough to make it possible to admit them to Britain over a period of time under a voucher system.”

Yet only the Falkland Islands gave a positive response, saying they would accept doctors, teachers, domestic servants and farm workers. This reveals the inherent racism within the post-imperial British state.

At a local level, on the arrival of Asian refugees fleeing persecution from Uganda in 1972, the National Front co-ordinated a spiteful campaign of divisiveness and propagated anti-immigrant sentiment.

Leicester City Council — on hearing that many Ugandan Asians intended to move there — placed an advert in the Ugandan Argus. It warned of no houses, no jobs and full schools. “In your own interests and those of your family you should... not come to Leicester,” it read. How wrong this proved to be.

In the 1976 local elections, the high point of the far-right’s electoral success in my constituency, the National Front had increased its vote share to 18 per cent. This history is a source of pain for those of us in Leicester who despise and oppose racism in all its forms. Yet the history of those who fought back and opposed the far right is a source of great pride and inspiration.

It was the efforts of anti-racist activists, campaigners and organisers that beat back the rise of organised racism. I am incredibly proud to have been born and bred in such a wonderfully diverse city. But I do not take tolerance and multiculturalism for granted. The right for different communities and cultures to live side by side has been fought for by generations of struggle.

Issues of structural racism have never disappeared. That’s why I am appalled by the government’s willingness to divide our communities based on the colour of our skin, our religion and where we come from.

It is shameful that, in the 50th anniversary year of the arrival of Ugandan Asians, the government is pushing through the disgraceful Nationalities and Borders Bill. The legislation is anti-refugee to its core. It lacks basic humanity and represents an acceleration in the government’s deeply damaging demonisation of migrants and asylum-seekers.

The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill seems to be cut from the same cloth as the brutality and dictatorship of Idi Amin.

The callousness of the Bill has been further illuminated by Russia’s shocking invasion of Ukraine, which has triggered what the UNHCR describes as the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II with over three million refugees fleeing the country.

The government must provide safe passage and refuge for displaced people, refugees and asylum-seekers arriving from Ukraine as well as all theatres of conflict and war across the globe.

The government must redesign the asylum system along the principles of solidarity and decency, provide Indefinite Leave to Remain for all undocumented migrants in Britain, end the destructive demonisation of refugees and asylum-seekers and abandon the deeply damaging Nationality and Borders Bill.

Above all, we need our government to reflect the openness and tolerance that — as demonstrated by the story of the Ugandan Asian community — defines the best of Britain’s communal spirit.

Claudia Webbe MP is the Member of Parliament for Leicester East — Twitter: @ClaudiaWebbe.

OWNED BY OUR READERS

We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 18,301
We need:£ 0
4 Days remaining
Donate today