British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
Arrival at UK airports, and initial distribution
Starting on 18 September and concluding on 9 November 1972 (the day after Amin’s deadline), 15,093 passengers arrived at Stansted on ninety-two special flights, with a further 9,982 arriving at Heathrow, 913 at Gatwick and 204 at Manchester. British Caledonian, BOAC and East African Airways were involved in the airlift.
Early arrivals, interviewed by journalists as they came through the landing gates, told harrowing stories of being stripped of businesses, personal possessions and life savings, and of their harassment and humiliation on the way to the airport at the hands of the army. Articles with headlines such as ‘Immigrants’ Terror: ‘’One word and we’re dead’’: Amin’s rampaging soldiers hold Asians to ransom’, and ‘Our Escape from Hell: Asians in fear of bloodbath’, all served to establish the expellees as genuine refugees in need of safety.
They were entering a Britain of rising unemployment, inflation and economic uncertainty, and where racism and mistrust of immigrants was rife. They were exhausted, confused and fearful for the future. On top of all that, the weather in autumn 1972 was consistently wet and cold, and most of the expellees were wearing light clothing suitable for the African climate.
It was that big impression of driving past the base and just seeing so many displaced people, out there, lost – they looked lost. They were lost, weren’t they, at the end of the day? And, yeah that does, it’s stayed with me anyhow, and I know it has for probably a lot of other people as well. It’s something you hope you never see again but as we all know the world is moving on and things are happening again.
Alan Cordy, local resident, Stradishall, Suffolk
Two or three things I can remember – one was getting off the plane and I was still in shorts and my knees were knocking [laughs] as I got off the plane, thinking ‘Wow this is cold’ and then being really pleased to get a coat like this [gestures pulling on coat], from where they were giving clothes away.
Professor Akbar Vohra who was a child at Stradishall camp
On arrival, the expellees were welcomed by paid welfare workers and volunteers from the British Red Cross, Woman’s Royal Voluntary Service, St John’s Ambulance and other voluntary organisations, and given tea and sandwiches at the airport. Following registration by Ugandan Resettlement Board officials, those who had nowhere to go boarded chartered coaches.
Nationally, the Uganda Resettlement Board had been tasked with finding suitable short-term accommodation at extremely short notice. Following negotiations with the Ministry of Defence, disused Army and RAF bases were made available in sixteen locations across the country. Most of the camps were in poor condition and had to be made ready; they also tended to be in isolated or rural locations, far from amenities or any major cities. The armed forces and voluntary organisations including the Round Table played a leading role in making the camps ready.
There were lot of local organisations involved, they rallied round very well. We were members of one organisation called Round Table and all the organisations in the area, Round Table, Rotary, everybody was asked to help by the local council. So we went down to the camp, quite a few of us. We went to the camp and we were quite appalled by the condition. I mean, the army had moved out of there quite a time before, so this was just a barren camp on a barren hillside. The accommodation was pretty awful. So we were assigned several blocks, we cleaned them basically and got them ready.
Ron Isles, volunteer, Tonfanau camp
Over 3,000 expellees were sent first to the former air base at Stradishall in Suffolk, which acted as a holding camp until families were sent to other resettlement centres or found permanent accommodation. Although designed to accommodate 800, this camp held around 1,600 at its peak. Greenham Common outside Newbury accommodated another 1,700; Hemswell and Faldingworth in north Lincolnshire between them took another 1,600.
The coach or train journeys to the camps were often long and arduous – to Tonfanau in Wales it
lasted nine hours, with arrival late at night. British Rail provided free sandwiches, though with limited understanding of the refugees’ dietary requirements. Many expellees report that following their recent experiences with the Ugandan armed forces, they were terrified at the sight of the soldiers and police officers who had been tasked with helping them off the train and carrying their luggage.
We were very tired you know when we came to Wales, because it was a long journey. First we were put from the airport onto the coach and then we were transferred from coach to the train and it was a long journey. Sandwiches were dished out but they didn’t know that some of us were vegetarians so somehow we were given ham sandwiches.
Praful Purohit, resident, Tonfanau camp
At the peak of the reception process in late October and early November, the Board and the camps struggled to keep pace with the arrivals. Original government plans had been based on the expellees being met at the airports, taken to a reception centre and rapidly moved out into the community. But the UK’s housing shortages, growing picture of unemployment and many of the expellees’ unfamiliarity with British society and English as a language meant that things moved slower than hoped.
On the other hand, the expellees were entering a country with an established and growing South Asian, and East African Asian population, and where thousands of White British volunteers were keen to welcome the expellees, provide practical assistance and make the path to their resettlement smoother. The Asian populations of Leicester, London and Britain’s other cities worked hard to raise money, collect clothes and furniture for the arriving expellees, as well as offering them accommodation and work.
We must not put all the burden on the British Government or people. We must take responsibility and make preparations to help the people.
Spokesman, Leicester’s British Asian Welfare Committee, 16 August 1972