British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
Interviewers: Warwick Hawkins
Place: via Zoom
Date: 14th July, 2022
Peter Courtier was a young volunteer with a special interest in race relations. He played a pivotal role at Heathfield Resettlement Camp, where he managed a group of volunteers to aid the Ugandan Asians in 1972/3. Topics discussed include: the conditions of the camp; the British government’s initially reluctant but ultimately positive interventions to resettle refugees; ‘tensions’ within the camp; colonial legacies; trauma; lasting connections; effects upon his own life and career; comparisons with later Ukraine and Somali crisis.
Involvement with Heathfield Camp
0:44 It all goes back to November 1972, when I had come out of University and spent a year in South America. I came back to England. I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I volunteered to help with resettlement of Asians from Uganda during that month. I was posted to Honiton, Devon to the Heathfield Resettlement Centre and it all began from there. I was appointed by the Coordinating Committee for the Welfare of Refugees from Uganda, er to make good links with all the camp’s residents, voluntary organisations and especially to support the voluntary sector input, into what was a Government operation – what was called the Uganda Resettlement Board. [It was] my very first involvement into a very multi-racial situation apart from my travels, which I think did help me have a viewpoint about how it is to be an immigrant in a rather racist society.
Early experiences of the evacuees
1:50 When Idi Amin made his decision to evacuate everybody, it obviously dominated the news coverage at that time. And, er, there was, actually, a real debate within the Conservative party about whether they could accept more, in quotes [gestures air quotes] immigrants, and so it wasn’t straightforward, the politics of the time. I’d actually studied politics at Sheffield University, so I was quite a political animal, and I think initially I was determined to help because I was disgusted by the reaction of a lot of press, and Members of Parliament, who were resisting helping what were British citizens who were then residing in Uganda.
Initially, we would obviously, we’d wait for the flights to come in and coaches would arrive. People would arrive with very little luggage, in a rather a cold winter, and the first issues were just very basic things like, providing warm clothing to people and at least try to assist them in what was quite often traumatic surroundings on their leaving Uganda. Many had a pretty horrible experiences in Kampala airport before leaving, were treated quite roughly by the army there and other people. So people were inevitably traumatised, and this was exacerbated because many families became divided. At the time, in British immigration law, a woman was not entitled to bring her husband into the UK. It was actually overt sexual discrimination, which was eventually outlawed. But back in 1972, that resulted in a lot of families where maybe the wife or mother had British Citizenship, but the husband was stateless, and the stateless people were not allowed to accompany their children or partners into the UK. They ended up in refugee centres mainly in places like Sweden, and Switzerland, and other countries in Europe. So on top of the trauma of coming here, we were in a situation where a lot of families were separated by both racist and sexist immigration legislation at the time.
The [Resettlement] Centre had civil servants working in it, whose main job was to try and resettle the families. So a lot of work was obviously taking place between these resettlement officers and the families themselves. But obviously while they were waiting for resettlement, which was not quick, the children had to go to local schools, we had to get local social services involved, we had to get the voluntary sector involved. Groups like the WRVS, for example, played a very crucial role in really supplying wonderful volunteers who made a big difference, to the rather more formal approach with the civil servants, who were rather more bureaucratic. So I think, we were a bit more responsible for the caring element. We had probably up to half a dozen volunteers who resided in the centre with me, and some of the civil servants. It was rather funny in a way because we had our own quarters, it was a bit like in a ship. We used to have our own restaurant. It was a bit like segregation, er in British style, colonial style, which was ironic.
5:21 Uhm, but er, when we got out to the wider community, of course there was a wide range of volunteers from schools, from Exeter University, from sports organisations, you name it! There were people who were determined to be positive. And that was really welcome. Initially, there was some resistance to them coming to Honiton at all. People felt if they were going to go anywhere – probably should not be in Britain, but if not – then they should be in Leicester, or they should be in Birmingham, or nearest to us maybe Bristol. But certainly Devon it was new territory.
The experience of the Ugandan Asians
5:59 I would say there was very little tension, because most people who volunteered had a commitment to do something positive and this was welcomed by the residents. And there was a feeling, ‘Well we’re all in this together’. It was a bit like the war spirit in Britain, that people came together, in a way that probably they would not have done in peace time. There was a little bit of that and that was actually all very positive. As with all these type of situations, there was some resistance at them coming, [local people] they thought they might be overwhelmed, or they might take our jobs, all the usual jargon you hear from people who were basically racist or anti-immigrant. Erm, but the local grocers began to find if they’ve got Asian foods in the shop and everything, they get a bit more trade. And of course, one thing about the British Asians from Uganda was that they were quite entrepreneurial, so relationships began developing in rather positive way, where there was common interest. They made some money but also people bought the food and things they would not find available in a place like Honiton.
7:02 Inevitably, there would be tensions within the residents. I mean some of that, I think is stuff that came back from Uganda, because some evacuees were er in fact very well qualified, doctors and technical people and obviously more inclined to things like private education . Er but we also had much poorer families, so you couldn’t generalise. So inevitably, as with all people, there were differences. We did set up a sort of committee of the residents, but inevitably in the beginning it was dominated by the people who probably dominated in the colonial system from East Africa, where the Asians were very much an intermediary group brought over initially to build things like the railways in East Africa; who were in between the Africans and the colonial whites and there was always elements of some of that sort of brainwashing going right through everybody who came. Er because their experience of British people was very much still colonial. You have to remember, these countries had not been independent for very long, and they were very very used to their white masters deciding everything. But the Asians were in a slightly more privileged situation, than the Africans and one saw elements of racism in all parts of that, in miniature, in the centre.
8:36 Having said that, I think the trauma of what happened and the situation people were in, forced people to actually come together. I think that was actually very positive. But inevitably, there would be tensions, and you know, there were religious differences, there were obviously geographical differences, all the differences of human beings worldwide, were in a small contained centre which was a military camp, which is not the most wonderful site. It was not like er maybe a nice hotel. The accommodation was pretty dismal. And the conditions, I would say, left a lot to be desired. But it was one of the first times, with a refugee situation, that the British government had actually gone that far to support people coming in. So I have always given some credit to the Uganda Resettlement Board at the time, but it was dominated by civil servants, most of whom were white, who had very little experience apart from maybe a colonial experience of working with Black people.
9:45 I have actually very fond memories. I became very friendly with some immigration officers who were younger, who were seconded to work in the centre. Of course, they spent most of their time being taught how to keep Black people out, but they actually, they developed relationships within the centre where we were all living together, which were very positive. They often admitted to me when we all went for a drink in the pub afterwards, that it had really affected how they thought about the situation of their jobs up until then, and it was making them re-evaluate how they approached people, how they deal with people. Because they were being required by the government and people like that to resettle people, as well as if possible to find employment, education, houses and it was very different to having a negative approach of: ‘How do we keep them out?’
I mean, the numbers reduced, as people gradually settled, but we still had hundreds of residents who were not resettled but what the government did, they began to close centres, and we were one of the first to close. I always thought it was probably because of all the opposition of the local Conservative MPs in the very beginning, to even having a centre in the middle of Devon. All the people from the Heathfield centre eventually went to Lincoln, to a RAF base called Hemswell, and we convinced the government, it would be good to do it in one block of people as they had already had relationships and all the rest of it, and they agreed on that. So one day we had a whole train hired, for all the people who were left in the camp, and we took them to Hemswell and of course, subsequently, a lot of those camps were closed, increasingly as the numbers reduced.
Life after camp
11:25 Yes, I did stay in touch with some people and I ended up after working with another organisation assisting so-called [gestures air quotes] “immigrants”. I ended up working in Bristol, with the Bristol Racial Equality Council, and of course, I knew some of the families who we had resettled from Devon, and that helped me a lot to make links to the Asian community in Bristol. I subsequently worked in Bristol then for thirty years in Race Relations.
11:54 In terms of lessons, I think what was interesting about this particular experience, as I sort of mentioned, is that the government actually made quite a positive effort to resettle people and I think that was a very useful experience, but unless you do have sufficient housing, accommodation and resources, there will always be tensions and we have to learn ti work through those tensions; it is not about keeping people out, it is actually about welcoming people. The one thing I do feel while the Ukrainian situation is going on, is how remarkable it is and positive that so many people are welcoming people in their own homes. I have to say, we didn’t really have that experience with Asians from Uganda. They were welcome to go to relatives and maybe their own community, but there weren’t many people volunteering in the way we have seen in the Ukrainian situation.
Erm, and prior to this, another very big wave of immigration happened from Somalia. Again, one did not notice British people really welcoming them. And it was usually the local Somali communities and all the rest of it, who provided most of the assistance. And, er, so the Ukrainian situation is interesting, but I always wonder if they happened to have a Black skin, would it have been like it’s been? It’s a good question to ask. And so much I think of immigration, unfortunately, is also driven by racist attitudes and one of the major ones is people’s colour of skin.
Britain is a very rich country and although we might lack some resources in terms of housing, whatever, where there is a will, there is a way. And, certainly, there was a will by the government back in 1972, eventually with the evacuees from Uganda, and there was with Ukraine, but you still feel the politicians always move rather slow, a bit resistant because they are more and more interested in still portraying that the country is too full and we need to stop people coming in.
14:05 My experience of people working with British Asians from Uganda was a very positive one, because I was thrown into a situation where within the centre, the majority of the people were of South Asian origin and of course, that’s a very useful experience for white people to have. The wider society was completely different, but for me that was very much a learning experience, and I [pauses], I am always grateful for that experience. I think it made me have a bit more humility, it’s made me think a bit more positively about people worldwide, and, I have always been very grateful. I am always amazed how the human spirit sometimes can really win through in a very positive way. And for me, my human spirit was strengthened with that experience, no doubt.
I think what was more remarkable actually, now looking back on it fifty years ago, is how incredibly successful so many of those families have since been. [They have] played a very crucial role in increasing the wealth of Britain. I mean, a very large number of Asians ended up in Leicester, but Leicester became a very wealthy city as a result of that migration and many of those people have now gone on to do great things. Despite all the reservations everybody had, there was a net benefit from that particular evacuation because a lot of people with skills, with entrepreneurial skills – most of them didn’t speak English – [but they] have made a major contribution to cities and towns and villages throughout the UK and some of them are very wealthy as a result.
Last modified: 20th Nov 2022