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British Ugandan Asians at 50

Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.

History:

Prejudice

From the moment that Idi Amin gave his expulsion order, some people in Britain expressed strong anti-‘immigrant’ views and concerns over the impact that the arrival of the Ugandan Asians would have on British society and culture. Others spoke up on favour of the Ugandan Asians and the right of UH passport holders to come to Britain. 

In the press and wider media, and in Parliamentary Questions, four points of concern were repeated: the shortage of housing, unemployment, the ‘strain’ on social services, and a generalised feeling that the Asians did not ‘’fit in’’ with ‘’our way of life’’. These attitudes were expressed in a number of ways. For instance, there was a spate of hoax letters carrying convincing-looking addresses of local hospitals and government departments, telling householders that under ‘emergency powers’ they had to take some expellees as lodgers.

A Ministry vehicle will bring their luggage, consisting of six bed rolls and six prayer mats. It is imperative that the prayer mats be laid out facing East, towards Mecca. You will be required to provide all meals for these people, and the following food will be provided: 500 kilograms of rice; 100 kilograms of chapattis; 50 kilograms of mangoes; 250 kilograms of yams and 100 kilograms of curry powder, extra hot high Madras quality.

Sample hoax letter, autumn 1972

The far-right group the National Front instigated a determined campaign against the Ugandan Asians, demonstrating outside some of the camps, asking its members to attend local council meetings to ‘make a big fuss’, and to ‘flood local newspapers with punchy letters protesting about the menace of Asian immigration’. It fielded candidates in local and national elections, including twenty-six in Leicester’s District Council elections of June 1973. It won no seats but attracted around 20% of the vote locally and 8% in the February 1974 Parliamentary elections.

But anti-Ugandan Asian feelings were not only expressed on the political right. Arthur Lewis, Labour MP for West Ham North, was at the forefront of asking questions in Parliament and the press, demanding to know if the expellees were going to jump the housing queue and get preferential welfare benefits. We can find records of the concern of individuals through the letters to the editors of local and national newspapers.

These nationals of ours will be pushed even further down the long, long, housing and employment registry of this country to make way for the unwanted ethnic groups of other countries…Our medical services can barely cope with the present population, and yet you gladly welcome 50,000 more immigrants. What a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Sample letters to newspaper editors, autumn 1972

Leicester had already gained notoriety for taking out adverts in the Ugandan press, urging the expellees not to come to the city. In an effort to ‘dilute’ the impact of the expellees on housing, jobs and educational provision in particular areas, the Ugandan Resettlement Board drew up a list of Red Areas – defined as places with an ‘exceptional concentration of New Commonwealth immigrants’ – where the Ugandan Asians were encouraged not to go, including Leicester, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and parts of West London. It also identified Green Areas – parts of the country with a low number of existing new migrants, often with plenty of spare housing, including council housing. Expellees moving to the Green Areas could expect to be given housing, help with finding work and support after they had moved. Those choosing to move to Red Areas received nothing.

There was a jobcentre office on site, where we were all signed on for work. Everyone had an interview, and our skills were carefully noted so that we could be matched up with appropriate vacancies. Meanwhile, we were asked where we wanted to settle; although we were told clearly not to ask for London or Leicester, as they weren’t available options. I guess those cities were already overpopulated with Ugandan Asians, and we would need to be more evenly distributed.

Ramzu Pirmohamad

Being in a Green Area did not necessarily prevent the Ugandan Asians from experiencing racism. Some who had enjoyed friendly relationships with local people at the resettlement camps encountered prejudice and racism for the first time when they left them. Some felt that the support they got from the Uganda Resettlement Board had given them an unfair advantage in competing for jobs and housing.

One of the problems that did arise was that locally, people thought that… the papers were misreporting that the people that were coming in were coming in to beautifully furnished flats with refrigerators. Far from the case! I mean they got a chair each, they got a rotten table each, and a bed, that was about it.

Ron Isles, Round Table volunteer, Tonfanau camp

Who the Ugandan Asians’ new neighbours, work colleagues and classmates were could make a huge difference. One family, who were given housing and work in Perth, nevertheless decided to move to London, to escape their neighbours who made ‘very racialist remarks at them… [and made] them unhappy’. Even for those Ugandan Asians who managed to find themselves good jobs relatively quickly, work could be another place to experience racism.

While completing my A-levels in the UK, I decided to take a year off and got a job at a telecommunications company. But after some time working there, I began to feel unwanted. I felt this way for various reasons, such as the fact that all of the more unfavourable tasks were consistently dumped on me, and it was apparent that this was racially motivated. I was lucky that my friends from Uganda lived nearby, and they certainly helped keep my spirits up—but at work, I was miserable. Against all sorts of racial prejudices, I quickly learned that my career wasn’t going to flourish, and that if I wanted to overcome this barrier, I had to educate myself further.

Mukund Kataria, a teenager upon expulsion

Other Ugandan Asians reported a much better experience, with neighbours willing to support the newcomers with hospitality and friendly advice about life in the UK.

We had a coach to take us from Stradishall to Peterborough. We were shown around by a really nice lady, all the furniture etc. Next door neighbour were a retired couple. They showed my mum, my parents really how to light a fire (laughs), because we had never seen coal or lit a fire to warm yourself up. Showed us where the coal bunker was and how to order coal and things. So the neighbours were fantastic. The support we got to integrate, the support from people our own age and the neighbours was terrific.

Professor Akbar Vohra, whose family was offered a council house in Peterborough

Red Areas may have struggled with problems, particularly of overcrowding and poor housing. But unlike many of the Green Areas, they offered plenty of opportunities for work. And, with their already-established South Asian and East African Asian populations, with their places of worship, social networks, and shops and cafes offering familiar foods, they provided something essential for the dislocated Ugandan Asians – the possibility of feeling at home.

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