The United Kingdom has experienced many different waves of mass migration over the past 80 odd years. The number of people coming from all over the world has changed the country fundamentally and absolutely for the better. It cannot be denied that British society as a whole has gone through teething problems when it comes to immigration, from Enoch Powell and the ‘Rivers of Blood’, to the rise of the National Front. Thankfully, Britain today is a very different place and much more welcoming of immigrants. Different groups will always integrate more or less into a new society, and there are few better examples of that than the arrival of Ugandan Asians into Britain in 1972.
The UK has a large Asian community, due in large part of course to the former colonial relationship Britain has with India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries on the subcontinent. The part of that community that is slightly less well known is the community that came over in 1972, after being expelled by the deeply racist, dictatorial and cruel regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. Around 30,000 people of Indian origin were expelled by Amin, on the basis that they were ‘dominating’ the economy and preventing the African majority from owning their own means of production. Amin claimed it was the responsibility of the UK to take in the Indians on the basis that it was as a result of colonial policy that they ended up there in the first place.
In Uganda, the Indian community was very successful and had significant wealth. They worked largely in trades, where their confraternities were among the leading companies in central Africa. When Amin ordered them out of Uganda, they were given 90 days in which to pack up their things and leave. Of course, what they could take out of the country was strictly controlled, and they were unable to liquidate their businesses. From the point of view of the Ugandans who wished to take over their business interests, why on earth would they pay for something that would fall to them automatically in 90 days time?
The British High Commission (Embassy in a former colony) stayed open through the night for weeks at a time, authorising applications to become British Protected Persons and stamping passports so that the soon-to-be refugees could have safe passage to the United Kingdom. From August to October of 1972, thousands of Ugandans of Indian origin arrived in the United Kingdom to start a new life in a country they had never called home, in a culture they had never known.
On arrival in the UK, the immigrants were put in specific camps in some cases, and in others parachuted in to some of the poorest areas of the country to live in urban slums. Despite the difficulties of language, culture, climate and everything else, that community has gone on to thrive and build one of the great success stories of immigrant integration. They and their descendents have served in the highest levels of government, they have run businesses and led academic departments of some of the finest British universities. They excel academically, overwhelmingly remain within the bounds of the law and contribute to charity and public service with time and charitable donations. They are in short, one of the most wonderful, honourable and civic-ally minded communities in the UK.
The British-Asian community from Uganda are an example to all immigrants who come to the UK. They show it is possible to succeed if you work hard, play by the rules, integrate yourself into the life of the local community and give everything to the cause, there is opportunity in Britain for you. Not just that, but the UK can learn something as well. British society can surely learn the lesson, that if opportunity and understanding is extended to immigrants, then they are not in the country to take advantage but to build a better life for them and their families.
The truth is quite simple. The Indians of Uganda came to the United Kingdom with nothing. They came out of fear of violence, hatred and persecution. It was not their fault they were forced out of their own country, and they didn’t choose the path of least resistance or the easy way out. Yet still they came, and worked, and fought and contributed. No hand-outs, just opportunity. That is all they – and other refugees like them – ever ask for.
They came with the clothes on their backs. We owe it to them to offer them the opportunity to live up to their own God-given potential.