Five decades after the first evacuation flight of Ugandan Asians landed in the UK on September 18, 1972, their story has been touted as a triumph of British generosity and migratory success.
During their final weeks in Uganda, my grandparents Rachel and Philip cried when the new owners took away their beloved dog, an Alsatian named Simba. Their cat was shot by a neighbor who had long considered it a nuisance. Recent trips to Entebbe airport have for many been marred by harassment, violence and thefts at military checkpoints. But my family made it through safely, taking one last look at the country they had called home for 19 years.
A British journey
As for my grandparents, in 1953 they were approached in southern India by a British education official who offered them jobs for maths and science teachers like them in Uganda. They were offered attractive salaries, career opportunities and lifestyles. Two adventurous spirits, they soon began their journey by boat to Mombasa, Kenya, then by train to Kampala, Uganda’s city of seven hills.
In the Kololo district, my mother, her brother and her sister grew up in a bungalow shaded by leafy trees. Life was good for them, with a perfect temperate climate, a lively social scene and a rich educational system.
And a British welcome
Soon after, the government launched what historian Sanjay Patel describes as a “diplomatic offensive”, desperate to resettle people elsewhere. From India to Australia, from Canada to Mauritius, Westminster sent telegrams around the world. By mid-September, Britain had approached over 50 governments to try to reduce the number they had to take themselves.
Growing up, I never identified as a child of refugees – and as British passport holders, by definition, my family and most deportees were not. But many people within the Ugandan Asian community describe themselves that way, perhaps partly because the experience of displacement lends itself to that feeling, but I think also because they were made to feel that way.
Arriving at Heathrow Airport in London in November 1972, in light clothing unsuitable for wintering away from the equator, my family was welcomed into the village house of an English family, before moving into a house provided by a Methodist church. Empty, but fully furnished, it had everything it needed to start over, thanks to the generosity of strangers.
A rags-to-riches story
Former Prime Minister David Cameron called Ugandan Asians “one of the most successful immigrant groups in the history of the world”, a heritage of which many British Ugandan Asians are rightly proud. Their members have gone on to run multinational companies, become community leaders and have served in the House of Lords. But by portraying them as a model minority, it reiterates “good immigrant” tropes and offers justification to criticize any migrant who falls 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 was able to do.
Far from a warm welcome, the reality was that a state that had previously directly recruited my Indian grandparents to work for them attempted to render them stateless. The boundaries of the 1972 UK welcome were twisted to serve political purposes. The current official stance on immigration cannot rationally be described as “overwhelmingly generous”.
The author wishes to identify certain members of the family by their first names.