The Ugandan Asians never forget their debt to Britain (Evening Standard)
For most Londoners, the arrival of August is met with enthusiasm. The tube is quieter as people stream into Heathrow and Gatwick for their summer holidays. The news quietens down as the politicians take a welcome break. And the warmer weather gives a pleasant backdrop to the numerous festivals and barbeques that fill our calendars.
Yet for thousands of Londoners, early August sends a chill down our spine. For us, it’s a reminder that, forty-seven years ago, we lost everything. Our homes, possessions, dignity and even our assumed nationality were taken away from us in a heartbeat by the brutal dictator Idi Amin. I speak, of course, of the Ugandan Asians.
1972 may feel to many readers like ancient history. It was the year of the Watergate scandal, Bloody Sunday and the Munich Olympics Terrorist Disaster. Alice Cooper’s School’s Out was the soundtrack of the summer, and Are You Being Served? First appeared on British television.
But in Uganda, a rising climate of Indophobia had taken charge. Following his coup, the previous year, Idi Amin was in charge. His ascension had initially received the tacit support of Britain, America and Israel; he replaced the socialist-leaning Milton Obote and, given Amin had been a soldier in the British Colonial Army, it was felt that he’d be friendlier to the west in the ongoing Cold War.
Yet that proved disastrously wrong. Amin was erratic at the best of times, and found himself some new friends in Gaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union. And, as all socialist dictators do, he decided to create an enemy within; a group he could point to and blame for the poverty many ordinary Uganda’s faced. That enemy was to be the Ugandan Asians.
On 4 August 1972, while travelling south from Karamoja, President Amin addressed the officers and men of the Airborne Regiment in Tororo. In a rambling speech, Amin told the troops that he’d had a dream in which God had told him to expel the Asians, saying that Uganda had no place ‘for the over 80,000 Asians holding British passports who are sabotaging Uganda’s economy and encouraging corruption,’ adding that he wanted to see Uganda’s economy in the hands of black Ugandans.
Characteristically, while recounting his divine dream in Tororo, Amin got his figures wrong. There were in fact some 70,000 Asians in Uganda, but only about 30,000 of these were British passport holders. The remainder held Ugandan citizenship (23,242), or held Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Kenyan or Tanzanian passports (4,758). The remaining 12,000 were effectively stateless, having made applications for Ugandan citizenship that, long delayed, were now summarily cancelled by the regime.
But for everyone with an Asian heritage in that country, it became a living nightmare. Fewer than fifty Asians elected to stay, toughing it out through decades of brutal treatment. Nearly everyone else fled. Under Amin’s maliciously intolerant rule (he went on to murder and torture hundreds of thousands of his own people), those with British, Indian or other non-Ugandan passports (and sometimes none at all) were forced to leave behind everything, taking with them literally just the clothes on their backs. Brutally evicted, they were given only three months to leave. On the television in Britain, my family and I watched people’s baggage being opened on the tarmac; we watched jewellery and watches being taken off people (some of whom we recognised) as they fled to waiting planes.
The ripples caused by the expulsion reached many other countries, including here in Britain. Responsibility for those who were being forced from their homes became a global game of political football. India claimed the expelled Asians were the British government’s responsibility. Kenya and Tanzania closed their borders. In England, advertisements in Leicester warned Ugandans not to go there as there was now no housing and no jobs. People ended up as far afield as Canada, India, Australia, the US and many other places, with both family and friends being separated.
There was a terrible moment here in Britain when Parliament, having been stung by its experience of larger-than-expected numbers of Asian immigrants from Kenya in the preceding four years, hesitated before actually agreeing to allow the Ugandan Asians to come. Yet the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and his government demonstrated the compassion that I have come to associate with Britain. Heath ruled that Britain had a legal and moral responsibility to take in those with British passports, saying, ‘This is our duty. There can be no equivocation. These are British subjects with British passports. They are being expelled from their country, which in many cases is the land of their birth. They are entitled to come here and they will be welcome here.’
And so it was that between August and November 1972, around 28,000 refugees, comprising around 8,000 families, arrived homeless and scared at Stansted Airport. The Ugandans were greeted at Stansted and Heathrow by a large number of charitable and voluntary organisations which gave them food and shelter. We could not have been more grateful for the help and kindness that was provided, including many British families who opened up their homes and took in these refugees. This country gave us a second chance, and we have worked tirelessly to repay you.
As I mentioned in my new book “A British Subject”, we have adopted this country and embraced its values wholeheartedly. You will be hard-pressed to convince any Ugandan Asians that this isn’t the greatest country in the world, and over the years we have found tremendous success in this country because we have embraced all of its traditions and customs. Whether it be in business or politics, you will find Ugandan Asians at the forefront of British life – including our new Home Secretary, Priti Patel – all of them espousing their loyalty and gratitude to this wonderful country.
So as you go about enjoying the benefits that early August brings to Londoners, spare a thought for those 28,000 people who came here forty-seven years ago. Many of them now have pictures of Idi Amin hanging on their walls; because without him, we would never have been able to move to, live-in and embrace the greatest country in the world. Thank you, Britain.
“A British Subject – How to Make It as an Immigrant in the Best Country in the World” by Dolar Popat, with a foreword by David Cameron, was published by Biteback on 1st August and is currently available to buy from Amazon and all major bookshops.