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On 27 October 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:
Lord Popat (Conservative) to move that this House takes note of the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Ugandan Asians this year.
Lord Popat was born in Uganda and currently serves as the UK prime minister’s trade envoy for Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2019, he published an autobiography in which he reflected on his experiences of leaving Uganda in 1971, at the age of 17, to come to the UK. The book also considered the Ugandan government’s decision to expel Ugandan Asians shortly after his departure.
1. Background: Expulsion of Uganda’s Asian population
On 4 August 1972, Ugandan President Idi Amin, who had seized power in a military coup the previous year, ordered the expulsion of his country’s Asian population and gave them 90 days to leave the country. This reportedly followed a dream in which he had been instructed by God to expel them. Amin alleged, in the words of a contemporary report, that Uganda’s Asians had been “sabotaging Uganda’s economy, deliberately retarding economic progress, fostering widespread corruption and treacherously refraining from integrating in the Ugandan way of life”. He denounced the minority as economic “bloodsuckers” and warned that any remaining after the deadline risked being imprisoned in camps. Uganda’s Asian community, although representing only a small minority of the population at the time, was estimated to be responsible for around 90% of Uganda’s tax revenues. The expulsion of so many economically active individuals would come to have profound economic consequences for the country.
Estimates of the number of Ugandan Asians subject to Amin’s announcement vary, ranging from 55,000 to up to 80,000. However, sources such as the Economist, in a recent article marking the anniversary, have put the number of people of Asian descent in Uganda subject to Amin’s decision at around 76,000. Many were descended from merchants and workers brought over from India during the period of British rule. The variation in cited population figures appears to stem in part from an exemption announced shortly after Amin’s original announcement for those Ugandan Asians holding Ugandan citizenship, although many of these people were later compelled to leave the country and rendered stateless in the process. In addition, some Ugandan Asians may have started to leave Uganda under the previous regime and in the context of rising political hostility to those of south Asian descent in neighbouring Kenya. Of the estimated total, around half are thought to have held British passports with another 9,000 holding Indian or Pakistani nationality and the remainder either holding or having applied for Ugandan citizenship.
In an article published in the Journal of Refugee Studies following the 20th anniversary of the expulsion, Nicholas Van Hear, then an academic at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, summarised where those expelled resettled:
Upwards of 50,000 Asians left Uganda between the announcement of the expulsion and the November deadline, leaving just a small Asian population behind. The majority of the British passport holders, about 29,000, were granted entry into the UK. An unknown number, perhaps of the order of 10,000, made for India and Pakistan. Many of those rendered stateless or with undetermined nationality were resettled in Europe and North America. After reception in camps in various parts of Europe, some 6,000 people in this position were resettled in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. Canada accommodated around 6,000 people, including some British passport holders, and the USA about 1,500.
The first official evacuation flight to the UK, organised by the UK government, landed at Stansted airport on 18 September 1972. Most of those who arrived between September and November 1972 were resettled via 16 temporary centres set up and administered by the Uganda Resettlement Board.
In another article published in the Journal of Refugee Studies, Valerie Marett, formerly a lecturer in education at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University), estimated that one in five of those who came to the UK would go on to permanently settle in Leicester. In another article, Vaughan Robinson of the University of Swansea noted that significant numbers also settled in Greater London.
Fifty years later, it is widely recognised that the Ugandan Asian community in the UK has become an economically successful minority group. In an article published in the Journal of Refugee Studies in 2021, Dr Jonathan Portes of King’s College London and others found that East African Asians, which included those from the Ugandan, Kenyan, Tanzanian and Malawian Asian diaspora, “have indeed done well”. They continued:
In summary, the distributions of occupation, education and employment status for this group appear to be better or at least no worse than for the rest of the population, particularly for the younger cohort. Similar proportions have ended up in high occupational status jobs as UK-born individuals. By 2011, East African Asians were significantly overrepresented among professional and managerial occupations. This is quite remarkable, given the many disadvantages with which the group arrived.
In 1997, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni invited Ugandan Asians to return “home”. In recent years, the Indian Association of Uganda has said that Uganda’s Asian population again contributes significant tax revenue in the country (at around 65%). However, it is thought that the community now comprises more arrivals from South Asia than returnees from the diaspora created by the expulsion of 1972.
2. 40th anniversary debates and government statements
In 2012, Lord Popat secured a debate to mark the 40th anniversary of the expulsion of Ugandan Asians from Uganda. This took place alongside a parallel debate in the House of Commons. Opening the debate, Lord Popat summarised the history of the expulsion before considering the Ugandan Asian community’s contribution to British society in the decades since 1972.
Responding on behalf of the government, Baroness Warsi (Conservative), then a senior minister of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, commented on events at the time before praising the community’s contribution to society. She said:
Few people alive in Britain 40 years ago will forget the scenes of thousands of Ugandan Asians being uprooted from their homes and arriving in Britain. In August 1972, 60,000 people were given just 90 days to leave their homes, their businesses and their country after a senseless decree by a brutal dictator, Idi Amin.
Looking back at that fateful time, we know that the UK acted swiftly. Amin announced on 4 August 1972 that there would be no room in Uganda for British Asians. Preparations began immediately in the UK for receiving those Ugandan Asians who had British passports. By 18 September the first 193 British Asians from Uganda had arrived at Stansted Airport. By 17 November more than 27,000 Ugandan Asians had arrived in the UK. In the first year—1972–73—a total of 38,500 Ugandan Asians came to Britain […]
Today we see Ugandan Asians making their mark in every corner of society: in politics with my noble friend Lord Popat and the honourable members in the other place Shailesh Vara and Priti Patel, who was the first Asian woman elected for the Conservatives and whose parents came from Uganda; in journalism with the likes of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Rupal Rajani; in sport with Mohamed Asif Din playing cricket for Warwickshire; in public services with Tarique Ghaffur becoming assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; and of course in business with entrepreneurs such as Zul Virani of Cygnet Properties and Leisure plc, Rumi Verjee, chairman of Thomas Goode and Co, who established Domino’s Pizza in the UK, Naseem and Moez Karsan of Jordans Cereals, Rupin Vadera, CEO of First International Group, and many others, including Jaffer Kapasi, to whom my noble friend Lord Sheikh referred.
In 1997, recognising the vitality lost to Uganda, the president invited the Ugandan Asians to return home. While some families did, most chose to remain in Britain as integrated British Ugandan Asians—one of this country’s greatest success stories. Their story is a lesson to us today about the successes of integration.
3. Planned commemorative events and recent statements
Various events have been planned to mark the 50th anniversary of the expulsion and the arrival of expelled Ugandan Asians in the UK. These include a national commemorative event being held at the Guildhall in London on 18 September 2022, organised by the British Asian Trust in collaboration with British Ugandan Asians at 50. Commenting ahead of the event, Lord Gadhia (non-affiliated), chair of the British Asian Trust and himself Ugandan-born, said:
The 50th anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asians is a moment to express our community’s eternal gratitude to all those who supported us in our hour of need.
British Ugandan Asians at 50, with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, have been capturing the oral histories of the amazing volunteers who helped to welcome Asians fleeing from Uganda. The project has also recorded interviews with some of those who arrived in 1972 and went through the resettlement camps. Their stories are powerful and deeply moving, recounting the experiences of those who fled Uganda and transitioned to a new life in the UK.
The stories of Ugandan Asians, and the generosity of spirit of the British people in welcoming them, are worthy of being captured properly for the benefit of current and future generations. This initiative could not be more timely, as the UK welcomes another generation of refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Other events include an exhibition and talks organised by Leicester Museums and Galleries and events and activities organised by De Montfort University in Leicester. In addition, St Antony’s College at the University of Oxford also held a conference on the expulsion in May 2022.
On 23 March 2022, Shailesh Vara, Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire and himself a Ugandan-born individual of south Asian heritage, raised the upcoming 50th anniversary at prime minister’s questions. Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded:
I think the whole country can be proud of the way the UK welcomed people fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda. Several members of the House, including the Home Secretary [Priti Patel] and her family, were beneficiaries of [the resettlement] scheme and that moment. This country is overwhelmingly generous to people fleeing in fear of their lives and will continue to be so.
4. Read more
- Lord Popat, ‘Fifty years on from the expulsion of Asians by Idi Amin, Uganda’s loss is Britain’s gain’, Politics Home, 25 July 2022; and ‘A British Subject: How to Make it as an Immigrant in the Best Country in the World’, 2019 (see in particular ‘Chapter 3: The Ugandan Asians and their expulsion’)
- Linktree, ‘British Ugandan Asians at 50’, accessed 26 August 2022
- National Archives, ‘Ugandan Asians 40 years on’, accessed 26 August 2022
- BBC News, ‘Ugandan Asians dominate economy after exile’, 15 May 2016
- Carleton University Library, ‘The Uganda collection’, accessed 26 August 2022 (an overview of the South Asian expulsion in Uganda and Canada’s response)
- Debate on ‘Ugandan Asians’, HL Hansard, 6 December 2012, cols 802–27
- Debate on ‘Ugandan Asians’, HC Hansard, 6 December 2012, cols 1041–64
Cover image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.
This article was updated on 6 October 2022 to reflect the change of date for the debate.