Fleeing Idi Amin: the long journey to a new life

Following the expulsion by Idi Amin of Uganda's Asian population in the summer of 1972, some 28,000 people arrived in Britain in a matter of weeks – to a mixed reception from their new neighbours. Becky Taylor charts their story

In a photograph taken at Bishop's Stortford railway station in Hertfordshire, 1972, resettled Ugandan Asians wait for the train that will take them to their new home. (Photo by Alamy)

Accompanied the BBC Four series A Very British History

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When, in the summer of 1973, the Muhammed family stepped off the train at Wick, 20 miles south of John o’Groats, they did not know it, but they had the distinction of being the northernmost Ugandan Asian family in Britain. At five o’clock in the evening, the Muhammeds – mother, father, and five children aged from five to 14 – had set off from Hemswell, an ex-RAF base in North Lincolnshire that had been serving as a resettlement camp. Arriving by train in Wick 16 hours later, disorientated and with only a limited grasp of British geography, the first question they asked on arrival was: “Are we far from London?” What were the steps that had taken the Muhammeds, who only months before had been living in Uganda, to the far reaches of north-east Scotland?

We could trace the first step on their journey back to the late 19th century. This was the time when Britain, as an imperial power, started encouraging migration from one of its holdings, India, to its new acquisitions in east Africa. Finding much of the local populace unwilling to engage in paid labour, the colonial government solved the manpower shortage by shipping workers across the Indian Ocean to build the new railways and other infrastructure needed to develop the territories. Accompanying them, and in their wake, came Indian clerks, traders and an emerging professional class who quickly created a new layer of society – servicing not only the newcomers, but the African population and colonialists too.

Fast forward half a century and we reach the second step on the Muhammeds’ journey to Wick. Demands for African independence brought growing criticism of east Africa’s Asian population, who were described as the “Jews of Africa” and “bloodsuckers” who dominated the civil service, the professions and the urban economy. Aware of the tensions, and to reassure east African Asians that independence wouldn’t result in catastrophe, the British government pledged to allow those in Uganda and Kenya to retain their UK passports (to which all citizens of Britain’s colonies were eligible) and their right of entry to Britain.

Amid demands for independence, nationalists called east Africa’s Asian population the 'Jews of Africa'

All too soon this was needed. First in Kenya, followed quickly by Uganda (which became independent in 1962), a series of ‘Africanisation’ policies were enacted. These banned non-citizens from the civil service and running businesses, and were accompanied by street violence and intimidation. Britain responded to the resulting exodus of Kenyan Asians by tightening immigration law: the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, strengthened by the Immigration Act 1971, introduced a requirement to demonstrate a “close connection” with the UK either via birth, or through parents or grandparents. In doing this, it excluded most Asian UK passport holders from unrestricted entry to Britain and reneged on the promises made to east African Asians on independence.

By the time Idi Amin announced, in August 1972, that all Ugandan Asians had 90 days to leave the country and could take with them the equivalent of just £50, they no longer had any automatic right of entry to the UK. It was only as a result of intense international pressure that Ted Heath’s Conservative government accepted responsibility for all UK passport-holding Ugandan Asians and allowed them to enter Britain. The new arrivals became the responsibility of the rapidly assembled Ugandan Resettlement Board (URB), which was charged with finding homes and employment for those forced to flee.

Economic hardship

This was no small task. The arrival of 28,000 Ugandan Asians in Britain in the autumn and winter of 1972–73 happened at an unpropitious time economically. After three decades of postwar prosperity, near full employment and economic growth, things were changing. Housing was limited and unemployment was the highest it had been for decades. This gave ammunition to opponents of immigration and prompted anti-immigration demonstrations in cities across Britain. The National Front was only one of a range of anti-immigrant groups capitalising on such attitudes, tying rising prices, economic difficulty and uncontrolled immigration together into a toxic mix of racism and street action.

There were those who argued that families such as the Muhammeds were unwelcome immigrants, taking housing, jobs and resources from hard-pressed Britons. Indeed, a few days after the Muhammeds arrived in Wick, a local family in a nearby village had their house burned to the ground. The next day the mother came into the local social work department demanding a new, fully furnished house. “After all,’’ she said, “it is my right, isn’t it? You did that for a Ugandan Asian family.”

And it was the government’s response to these kinds of attitudes that created the third step on the Muhammeds’ journey to Wick: the policy of dispersal. Anxious to diffuse tensions over the new arrivals, the URB divided the nation into “red” areas, which should receive none of the expellees, and “green” areas, to which the newcomers should be directed. Red areas, which included the major towns of the Midlands and most areas of London, were places that already had significant populations of newly arrived international migrants, including established and growing Asian communities. Not only did these areas have significant opportunities for work, but they also had existing shops, places of worship and cultural events catering for their new Asian populations. Yet rather than seeing these as reasons to encourage Ugandan Asians to settle in these areas, the URB instead declared them “full”.

Leicester City Council gained particular notoriety during the crisis for placing an advert in the Ugandan Argus newspaper warning Ugandan Asians who were coming to Britain of no houses, no jobs and full schools in the city: “In your own interests and those of your family you should… not come to Leicester.” And so it was to Scotland, all of which was designated green, and to Britain’s new towns, provinces and rural areas that the URB looked to house the expellees. Despite this, many of the expellees simply bypassed the official reception and resettlement programme and went straight to friends and relatives in Leicester.

A warm welcome

It’s important to recognise that this image of Britain as a hostile, grudging host of its former imperial subjects is only half the picture. Britain was changing. As much as postwar immigration, the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s were reshaping the country, making it more diverse, open to new ideas and people. For every person complaining that the expellees were threatening British jobs, there was someone else ready to give up their time to welcome the newcomers, and to try to make them feel at home.

Volunteers were drawn from all strata of British life, and more than 30,000 people became involved in reception and resettlement efforts. Showing the richness and diversity of British life at the beginning of the 1970s, volunteer rosters included representatives from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Catholic Committee for Racial Justice, the Indian Workers’ Association, the Zoroastrian (Parsi) Association of Great Britain and the British Council of Churches, as well as from newer groups such as the League of Overseas Pakistanis and the West Middlesex British Asian Relief Committee. Although the URB provided core funds and an administrative structure for the reception effort, volunteers worked as advisers, baggage handlers, clerical workers and telephone operators, and ran activities and social events. Gujarati-speaking volunteers became crucial interpreters as expellees sought to make sense of their new surroundings.

Today, Britain’s Ugandan Asian population is seen as one of immigration’s success stories

And this was to create the fourth and final step on the Muhammeds’ path to Wick. The URB had no powers to force councils or individuals to allocate housing or employment to the expellees. Rather, the URB relied on goodwill and sympathy with the Ugandan Asians’ plight to generate offers of homes or work from councils or employers. It looked to local voluntary organisations to prepare those houses for habitation and to make expellees feel at home.

In many towns, it was the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) that worked to source clothing, bedding, electric fires and heaters, while the dietary needs of the newcomers led local volunteers to put some effort into finding specialised kitchen equipment and utensils for cooking Indian food. No small part of settling in expellees involved introducing them to the vagaries of the British weather: “Coming from the warm climate in Uganda to the depths of a wet… winter, means that most Ugandans have inadequate clothing on arrival… The families had never known weeks of constant cold weather… [We tell] them exactly what to wear to keep warm, how to make fires that would warm all the rooms, what food would help to build up protection against colds…”

As well as getting help to tackle these practical difficulties, families also had to seek work and get their children into schools, often while facing language barriers and what could feel like an immense cultural divide. In Preston, local volunteers arranged for a female English tutor to visit women in their houses, while the local churches, led by the Methodists, ‘adopted’ individual families, visiting them regularly, inviting children to join the youth and sports clubs and acting as an informal point of contact. Such efforts at hospitality and welcome were vital to those making their first steps in their new lives in Britain.

Sudeep Kaur Bone’s family moved into a council house in Thetford, an experience that she remembered very positively: “The local community gathered up, I think through the church and all that, and we were given a council place and completely furnished… to a point where they even got the food for the first week… And there was another, a Punjabi family, they came and they brought the lentils and… the dahls and the spices and everything for us.”

Even the Muhammeds, up in Wick, were less isolated than it first appeared. The north of Scotland, too, was changing. They found in the town five families of Pakistani traders and shopkeepers, people who worked hard to make them feel welcome.

Food writer Meera Sodha, presenter of the BBC Four documentary, describes her grandfather’s dramatic escape from Uganda

My family’s Ugandan history began with my great-grandfather who moved there from Gujarat in 1913, sold on promises by the British Raj, which had pitched Uganda and Kenya as lands of opportunity for hard-working Indians. His five sons, including my grandfather, followed in the 1940s and the family built a thriving business empire that included an orange juice factory and printing press.

When Idi Amin announced the expulsion of Asian families from the country, the family embarked on a dangerous journey to Entebbe, where, as British passport holders, they could take a flight to the UK. My grandfather had heard rumours that Ugandan Asian girls were being raped as they fled the country, so he wrapped my 16-year-old mother in bedsheets and hid her in the back of the van. Despite being stopped by armed guards en route to the airport, they made their flight and ended up at Stradishall camp in Suffolk with just one suitcase of belongings between the five of them

Within two weeks of their arrival, my grandfather had accepted a job as a lorry driver at Scunthorpe Steelworks and the family moved to a council house in Winterton, five miles from Scunthorpe.

Having an Asian family in the area caused quite a stir and there was even an article about them in the local newspaper. Some people were anxious about having an Indian family nearby; others were ambivalent. But people were mostly welcoming – some brought cakes or offered use of their washing machines. The headmistress at the local school even invited my mother and younger brother into her garden to show them English flowers and teach them how to take tea.

My mother has always said she was excited to move to the UK – the family had always considered themselves Indian and British, even when living in Uganda. My grandfather, too, was determined to make the best of the move. He became one of the many success stories of the Ugandan-Asian immigration, saving hard to open a new business and prove his worth in the country that had offered him refuge.

Opening doors

Today, Britain’s Ugandan Asian population is celebrated as one of immigration’s success stories, seen as central to the economic and cultural strength of cities such as Leicester. But this outcome was by no means clear 45 years ago. To what can we attribute their success? In part, it was down to the reception and resettlement programme. While certainly flawed, it found people homes and work, while the massive voluntary effort far surpassed the activities of rightwing groups, and created a genuine atmosphere of welcome and friendship.

Crucial, too, was the support they found within the existing British-Asian population, who opened their doors to relatives and friends until the newcomers were able to establish themselves. Atul Pattni, who came to England as a child, remembered that on arrival his family stayed with his aunt in Leicester in a “three-bedroom terrace house with, oh, nearly what 16, 17 people” living in it for three months before his father was able to find a house for the family to rent. People found work for expellees in their businesses, or went into partnership with them, building up an enterprise from scratch. And, of course, there was the hard work and resilience of the Ugandan Asians themselves. Idi Amin may have forced them to leave behind their material wealth, but he could not take away their education, their skills or their determination to build a new life in Britain.

Becky Taylor is a reader in modern history at the University of East Anglia. She was the historical consultant on two episodes of the BBC Four series A Very British History, which includes an episode on Ugandan Asian refugees. The programme, presented by Meera Sodha, aired on BBC Four in February 2019

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This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine