British Ugandan Asians at 50
Highlighting the experience of British Ugandan Asians in and after 1972, and the many volunteers who helped them.
On 4 August 1972, Amin gave a wide-ranging speech to soldiers in Tororo, in the east of Uganda. Almost in passing, he declared that the country had no place ‘for the over 80,000 Asians holding British passports who are sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption’. In line with the wider trend towards Africanisation in this period, he stated that Uganda’s economy should be in the hands of Black Ugandans. Five days later he confirmed his position, giving Ugandan Asians a maximum of ninety days to leave the country, else they would ‘find themselves sitting on the fire’. Each individual was permitted to take what could be carried in one suitcase.
A week later he announced that the private sale of property by Asians – except personal clothing, radios, and furniture – was prohibited. All Asian-owned buildings, businesses, and industries would be confiscated by the government, without compensation.
Soon after the announcement we tried to sell as many of the goods from our shop as we could, before shutting it down. At one point the army arrived, carrying guns, to make sure we had done so—we didn’t risk reopening it to the public after that. But they would also show up randomly and ask us to open it so that they could help themselves to whatever they wanted. They never paid and we never asked them to. We were all very scared. We had to get rid of our household items too. We sat outside our house with our old clothes, toys, kitchenware and furniture, trying to sell it all. I recall lots of women doing this.
Firoza, aged 20 in 1972
As the deadline grew closer, panicked lines of people could be found outside the British embassy. There were not enough staff to process all the applications, and the British government had decided to prioritise the evacuation of ‘Belongers’ – white British nationals in Uganda. The Canadian Government established its own mission to process applications; following by a commitment by the Aga Khan to pay for the flights of Ismaili Muslims to Canada.
Families where some members held UK passports but others had Indian or Ugandan passports, or those with special circumstances, were particularly anxious to have their cases resolved. But many families were split up, sometimes for months, sometimes permanently.
My family and I decided we would go to the UK, and made our way to the British embassy to acquire visas. Given that my father already had a British passport, we didn’t think there would be any issues. However, nothing prepared us to witness people sleeping outside the embassy. Understandably, they felt desperate enough to do so. We ended up waiting there for a full twenty-four hours, but we all got our visas in the end.
As the deadline drew closer and families tried to get their affairs in order out on the streets things were getting more unpredictable. Not only Ugandan Asians, but African Ugandans who were suspected of opposing Amin faced arbitrary violence and detention by the army.
I do remember, very vividly, going to a friend’s place and finding that the house is empty – they are all gone, you know. And, you never knew who was leaving because people didn’t say goodbyes etc. As soon as arrangements were made, they fled. Hearing tales of people being abused, people being harassed, their material possessions being taken away from them. We had a house help called John, a young man – probably eighteen – and he didn’t come to work for few days. When he came back, he showed us his back where he had been lashed because he was taken by the police and for some reason, they wanted to know who does he work for.
My family and I went about doing what needed to be done, but all the while, there was a real sense of fear and panic. Trouble had started to flare out in Kampala, often without warning. For example, one day, while in town trying sort things out, we got stuck in the thick of things: the army had started shooting at people. We hid in my friend’s house. On that same day, two small children, whom I knew, were shot dead. Along with three other children from my family, they’d been playing outside when the army arrived and started shooting people at random. All five children hid as the army came closer, but at the last second, the three from my family decided to run and hide elsewhere. The other two were left behind in all the chaos and, unfortunately, paid the ultimate price.
As well as chaos in the streets and at home, expellees needed to negotiate a series of army roadblocks to reach Entebbe airport, and these became focal points for extortion and violence .Soldiers demanded that families open their suitcases, and took whatever items appealed to them. Some families had the foresight to offer bribes to the police to provide escorts.
We got to the airport and my aunt, my masi, her daughter was probably four at the time, and she had a teddy bear, and then the soldier tried to take the teddy bear off her, and what my aunt done was to pinch her really hard [gestures pinching his arm] and she just screamed. So obviously the soldier said, ‘Oh, what happened?’ She goes, ‘Sorry you have just taken her teddy bear away. You can’t do that’. So he gave it back to her. And in there she had put all her jewellery [laughs]. And she got that out of the country that way. So you can see lot of the stuff – they were checking everything. So, we only had the clothes we were wearing and a few bits, you know, to take out of the country.
The British government’s reaction to Idi Amin’s announcement was ambiguous. Were the Ugandan Asians UK citizens, immigrants or refugees? Changes in British immigration law in 1968 and 1971 meant that even though thousands of Ugandan Asians were still UK passport holders, they no longer had automatic right of entry to Britain. Edward Heath’s government had promised that there would be no more mass immigration. Yet the international community, and voices within the Government and media, were urging Britain to honour promises made to Ugandan Asians on independence, and take the expellees in.
Three days after Amin’s announcement, Race Relations minister David Lane said on the radio that Britain was already an ‘overcrowded island’, and confirming that immigration controls would remain firm. However, a high-level diplomatic mission to Uganda aiming to change Amin’s mind was a failure. This led to Britain’s envoy, Geoffrey Rippon, announcing from Kampala that ‘we can bear the responsibility for doing the best for United Kingdom passport holders’.
This did not, at first, mean allowing the Ugandan Asians to come to Britain. Rather, the British government expended a good deal of energy in August and early September trying to persuade other countries – India, Zambia, a number of Latin American nations – to take them. It also explored the idea of giving direct cash payments to UK passport holders who were willing to go to India in return for giving up their British passports. Ultimately though, other nations were unwilling to accept the expellees unless the British government took responsibility for all UK passport holders. On 10 September Prime Minister Edward Heath confirmed that all UK passport holders would be admitted.
At this point the government established the Uganda Resettlement Board to organise flights and the reception and resettlement of the expellees. Three airlines coordinated ticketing and check-in arrangements, and the first plane arrived at Stansted Airport on 18 September 1972 with 193 passengers.