Opinion: The tyranny of Idi Amin — and the limits of a British welcome

Editor’s note: Lucy Fulford (@lucyfulford) is a journalist and filmmaker specializing in migration, conflict and climate. She is the author of a forthcoming book, “The Exile: Empire, Immigration and How Ugandan Asians Changed Britain.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion where CNN.


The plane carrying 193 passengers flew over London Stansted Airport, where a group of reporters were waiting to document his arrival. Walking on the tarmac under typically English gray skies, families clutched their few possessions in briefcases and boxes, saris billowing in the wind.

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.

But the story is less heroic, as the British government first tried to send them Anywhere else.

In early August 1972, Uganda’s brutal military dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population, including my grandparents. About 55,000 to 80,000 Ugandan Asians had 90 days to leave, with just one suitcase and £50 each in their name (the limit of what they were allowed to take out of the country).

Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin, pictured in June 1972, said he had a dream in which God commanded him to expel the country's Asian population.

Amin had accused the Asian population of sabotaging the economy and warned that anyone refusing to leave would be “find yourself sitting on the fire.”

Although they constitute only a small minority of the population, Asians dominated the Ugandan economy. They had also been favored above the Ugandans in the colonial hierarchy, sowing the seeds of discontent.

My grandparents – British passport holders from India – were among the more or less 28,000 Ugandan Asians who have fled to the UK, and thousands of people have also settled in Canada, India and elsewhere in the world.

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.

In the late 19th century, British imperial authorities brought indebted laborers from India (a country under British rule) to East Africa to build hundreds of miles of railway from Kenya to Uganda (a british protectorate). These migrant workers then started shops and businesses, while the British administration continued to recruit Indians to work for them.

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.

The writer's grandparents Rachel and Philip with two of their children outside their home in Kampala in 1972, shortly before leaving for the UK.

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 education system.

But when Amin issued his deportation order, the British government did not intervene. Border controls have been strengthened in recent years thanks to two Commonwealth Immigrant Laws, restricting the automatic right of entry. Anti-immigration sentiment was strong – it was the time of the infamous”rivers of blood” speech – and unemployment was high.

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 sends telegrams around the world. By mid-September, Britain had approached over 50 governments to try to reduce the number they had to take themselves.

Prince Philip meets Ugandan Asians at a British reception center in Kent, November 1972.

Surprisingly, politicians even floated the idea of ​​sending the expellees to remote islands, including the Solomon and Falkland Islands. gold offering Payments of £2,000 in exchange for traveling to India and giving up the right to live in Britain.

Councilors in the English city of Leicester went so far as to publish a now notorious advert in Ugandan newspaper Argus warning people not to travel, which the city’s current mayor said he was “deeply shameful” of. “In your own interests and those of your family, you should not come to Leicester,” he added. Lily.

There has also been a deliberate shift in rhetoric aimed at crop the migration of legitimate passport holders from a post-colonial liability to a refugee crisis – making Ugandan Asians the liability of the global community, not just Britain. When Edward Heath’s government reluctantly accepted responsibility, the volunteers were placed at the heart of the resettlement programme, portraying the exodus as a humanitarian crisis.

Meat porters from Smithfield Market in London march to the Houses of Parliament to protest against the planned influx of Ugandan Asians, September 1972.

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.

The writer's family outside a church in Cambridge, UK, after leaving Uganda in 1972. Lucy's grandmother Rachel, centre, wears a donated fur coat.

Starting over became the root of the success story indelibly linked to Ugandan Asians ever since, a politician-pedaled rags-to-riches odyssey in which Britain opened its arms wide. In this year of the 50th anniversary some coverage has fallen short of such accounts, and it is bought by many community members themselves.

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 for criticizing any migrant who falls below arbitrary standards.

This year, outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson vaunted that “the whole country can be proud of the way the UK has welcomed people fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda…This country is extremely generous towards people fleeing in fear for their lives and will continue to do so be”.

But 50 years later, the UK government now oversees some of the toughest immigration policies ever – the attempted offshore transformation into Rwanda asylum seekers to the passing of the Nationality and Borders Act, which allows Britons to have their citizenship stripped without notice and asylum seekers to be criminalized depending on how they arrived in the country.

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 position on immigration could not rationally be described as “overwhelmingly generous”.

The trip of Ugandan Asians shows that we should celebrate the individual who stand up and make a difference, and don’t let others take credit for their efforts – both then and now.