Opinion: The tyranny of Idi Amin — and limits of a British welcome
Five decades after the first evacuation flight of Ugandan Asians touched down in the United Kingdom on September 18, 1972, their story has been held up as a triumph of British generosity and migratory success.
In their final weeks in Uganda, my grandparents Rachel and Philip wept as new owners took their beloved dog, an Alsatian named Simba. Their cat was shot dead by a neighbor who had long thought it a nuisance. The final journeys to Entebbe Airport were for many dogged by harassment, violence and robberies at military checkpoints. But my family made it through safely, taking one final look at the country they had called home for 19 years.
A British route
As for my grandparents, in 1953 they were approached in southern India by a British education officer touting jobs for maths and science teachers like them in Uganda. They were offered attractive pay, career opportunities and lifestyles. Two adventurous spirits, they soon began their journey by boat to Mombasa, Kenya, and then rail to Kampala, the Ugandan city on seven hills.
In the neighborhood of Kololo, my mother, her brother and sister grew up in a bungalow shaded by leafy trees. Life was good for them, with perfect temperate weather, a bustling social scene and a rich education system.
And a British welcome
Soon after, the government went on what historian Sanjay Patel describes as a “diplomatic offensive,” desperately seeking to resettle people anywhere else. From India to Australia, Canada to Mauritius, Westminster sent telegrams across the globe. By mid-September, Britain had approached over 50 governments to try and reduce the numbers they had to take in themselves.
Growing up, I never identified as being a child of refugees — and as British passport holders, by definition, my family and the bulk of those expelled were not. But many people within the Ugandan Asian community describe themselves this way, perhaps in part because the experience of displacement lends itself to this feeling, but I think also because they were made to feel this way.
Arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport in November 1972, in light clothes unfit for winter far from the equator, my family were welcomed into an English family’s village home, before moving into a house provided by a Methodist church. Empty, but fully furnished, it had everything they needed to start over, thanks to the generosity of strangers.
A rags-to-riches tale
Former Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to Ugandan Asians as “one of the most successful groups of immigrants anywhere in the history of the world,” a legacy many British Ugandan Asians are rightly proud of. Their members went on to run multinational businesses, become community leaders and sit in the House of Lords. But by holding them up as a model minority, it reiterates “good immigrant” tropes and offers a justification to critique any migrants who fall below arbitrary standards.
Immigration in 2022
While Ugandan Asians had a pre-existing right to settle in the UK, everyone has the right to asylum from persecution in other countries, as my family were able to.
Far from a graceful welcome, the reality was that a state which had previously directly recruited my grandparents from India to work for them, tried to render them stateless. The limits of 1972’s British welcome have been twisted to serve political aims. Today’s official immigration stance could not be rationally described as “overwhelming generous.”
The writer wishes to identify some family members by first names.