50 years ago this year, in 1972, my father and tens of thousands of Ugandan Asians were ordered to leave Uganda by the brutal dictator Idi Amin. In a chilling interview, the journalist Richard Lindley asked “what will happen to these people if they don’t go?” Amin replied, “I think they will be sitting like they are sitting on the fire”.
The events that followed saw panic and danger for the Asian community in Uganda. Violence ensued. Idi Amin began to refer to them as “bloodsuckers” as he sought to make Asians the ‘other’ to justify his diktat.
My father, a man of Indian descent born in Uganda, would often lament that one of his friends was tragically shot in front of him by Ugandan security forces. The violence perpetrated against many Asians as homes, belongings and businesses were seized left a lasting impact on those who endured it. Many families were also split up across continents in the rush to leave for somewhere safer. It is no coincidence that I now have family in both the UK and India.
On arrival in the UK, many faced racism whipped up by Enoch Powell and the National Front, while simply seeking safety from the butcher of Kampala. Leicester City Council took out advertisements in Ugandan papers warning Asians seeking to flee not to go there. My father, after settling in London, was attacked by far-right thugs and left with scars on his arm. This is a lesson about how important it is to face down far right rhetoric.
Despite these challenges, and many arriving with only one bag, Ugandan Asian refugees became a great success story in the UK. This success is in no small part due to the deeply aspirational outlook amongst many Ugandan Asian families; with the education of children considered vitally important.
I am incredibly proud of the life my own family has made for itself in the UK and the chances they have given their children. My father worked in cleaning jobs and a sausage factory before working his way into a decent job at IBM. Along the way he did what you might call ‘early IT support’ at Freshfields, where he met my mother, a working class Londoner and telex machine typist from Enfield. My auntie became a formidable figure in the workplace as well as a natural leader in the family, a role always delivered with an infectious affection for those around her. My Indian grandmother, who was a teacher in Uganda, acquired such a taste for malted milk biscuits that we joked she must have shares in them. That a woman from North India via Jinja came to love a biscuit with roots in Uttoxeter is an example of cultures coming together in a good way.
The UK was crucial in providing sanctuary during Edward Heath’s time in Downing Street. His government deserves credit for allowing thousands of British Asian refugees from Uganda to settle in the UK, in part based on upholding international law, and in part out of compassion – as he wrote in his memoir, “we did what any civilised nation would do”. It is an example which illustrates this country is at its best, striving to help those facing upheaval through no fault of their own. Beyond government action, many ordinary people also came forward to help support those arriving by volunteering in the camps and donating cold weather clothing.
More recently, the response from those opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees and our steadfast support for Ukraine itself is a heartwarming reminder of that better British tradition.
Conversely, we now have an expensive and unworkable policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda which has understandably led to criticism of the UK. We also hear calls to exit the European Convention on Human Rights, itself a great post-war achievement. The idea of leaving the ECHR must be roundly defeated to avoid sliding into a shameful commonality with Russia.
Tackling people traffickers is also vital, but it must be done safely and with compassion towards refugees. Despite being seemingly out of ideas, Ministers do have better options available that have been pointed out by MPs from their own party. Good sense, international cooperation and doing what works must replace jingoistic policies that officials have repeatedly warned against and which in some cases the UNHCR believes breaches the 1951 Refugee Convention.
It is true that the UK faces many problems, but they are not caused by those in desperate need. Our chronic lack of housing, for example, is not caused by those seeking refuge but instead by militant nimbyism and impossibly obstructive planning that governments have been unwilling to confront.
In the December 1972 House of Commons debate on Ugandan Asians, Sir Timothy Raison said of Britain’s response: “the best things in our own way of life, the things we most want to uphold – humanity and good sense, for example – have found expression”. As we take a moment to reflect on past events 50 years ago, we would do well to remember these words today.