Editor’s note: Lucy Fulford (@lucyfulford) Journalist and filmmaker focusing on migration, conflict and climate. She is the author of a forthcoming book, Exiles: Empire, Migration and How Ugandan Asians Changed Britain. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own. Read more of the opinion on CNN.
The plane carrying 193 passengers flew over London’s Stansted Airport, where a group of journalists were waiting to document its arrival. Families tread on the tarmac under typical gray English skies, clutching their diminutive belongings in suitcases and boxes, sari flailing 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 heralded as a triumph of British generosity and the success of immigration.
But the back story is less heroic, as the British government first tried to send it elsewhere.
In early August 1972, brutal Ugandan military dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of all Asian residents of the country – including my grandparents. An estimated 55,000 to 80,000 Ugandans were given 90 days to leave, with only one suitcase and £50 each (the maximum they were allowed to take out of the country).
Amin accused the Asian population of sabotaging the economy and warned that anyone who refused to leave would “find themselves sitting on the fire”.
Despite being a small minority of the population, the Ugandan economy was dominated by Asians. They were also favored over the Ugandans in the colonial hierarchy, where they sowed the seeds of discontent.
My grandparents – British passport holders originally from India – were among the approximately 28,000 Ugandan Asians who fled to the UK, and thousands also settled in Canada, India and elsewhere around the world.
In recent 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 dead by a neighbor who had long been thought to be a nuisance. For many, recent flights to Entebbe have been plagued by harassment, violence and theft at military checkpoints. But my family made it through safely, taking one last look at the country they called 19 years ago.
In the late 19th century, British imperial authorities brought debtor workers from India (a British-ruled country) to East Africa to build hundreds of miles of railways from Kenya to Uganda (a British protectorate). These immigrant workers later launched shops and businesses, while the British administration continued to recruit Indians to work for them.
As for my grandparents, they were contacted in 1953 in southern India by a British education official promoting jobs for math and science teachers like them in Uganda. They were offered attractive salaries, job opportunities and lifestyles. Two adventurous souls, soon began their journey by boat to Mombasa, Kenya, then rail to Kampala, the Ugandan city on seven hills.
In the Kololo district, my mother, brother and sister grew up in a small house shaded by lush trees. Life was good for them, with excellent mild weather, a bustling social scene, and a rich educational system.
But when Amin issued the order to expel him, the British government did not jump into action. Border controls have been tightened in recent years with two Commonwealth immigrant laws, restricting automatic entry. Anti-immigration sentiment was strong – this was the era of famous politician Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech – and unemployment was high.
Soon, the government continued what historian Sanjay Patel described as a “diplomatic offensive”, in a desperate quest to resettle people elsewhere. From India to Australia, and from Canada to Mauritius, Westminster sent telegrams across the world. By mid-September Britain had contacted more than 50 governments to try and reduce the numbers they would have to absorb themselves.
Surprisingly, politicians have floated the idea of sending the expelled to remote islands including the Solomon Islands and the Falkland Islands. Or offer £2,000 to travel to India and give up the right to live in Britain.
Councilors in the English city of Leicester went so far as to take out a notorious ad in Uganda’s Argos newspaper warning people against travel, something the city’s current mayor said he was “deeply ashamed” of. “For your own good and the interests of your family, you must … not come to Leicester,” the letter read.
There has also been a deliberate shift in rhetoric that has sought to reframe the immigration of legitimate passport holders from a post-colonial responsibility to the refugee crisis – making Ugandan Asians the responsibility of the global community, not just Britain. When Edward Heath’s government reluctantly accepted responsibility, volunteers were placed at the center of the resettlement programme, presenting the mass migration as a humanitarian crisis.
Growing up, I was never identified as the children of refugees – and as British passport holders, by definition, neither were my family and for the most part expelled. But many people within the Ugandan Asian community describe themselves this way, perhaps in part because the experience of displacement gives way to that feeling, but I think also because they were made to feel that way.
Arriving at London Heathrow in November 1972, dressed in light clothing unsuitable for winter far from the equator, my family was welcomed into an English family’s village home, before moving into a home provided by the Methodist Church. Empty, but fully furnished, has everything they need to start over, thanks to the kindness of strangers.
Starting from nothing has become the root of the success story indelibly linked with Ugandan Asians ever since, a poverty-to-riches saga teased by politicians, as Britain kept its arms wide open. On this year’s fiftieth anniversary, some coverage has lagged behind such accounts, and many in the community have bought into them themselves.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron referred to Ugandan Asians as “one of the most successful immigrant groups anywhere in world history”, a legacy of which many British Ugandan Asians are proud. Their members go on to run multinational corporations, become community leaders and sit in the House of Lords. But by being a archetypal minority, it repeats the metaphors of the “good immigrant” and provides a rationale for criticizing any immigrant who falls under arbitrary standards.
Outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson boasted this year that “the whole country can be proud of the way the UK welcomed fleeing Uganda under Idi Amin…This country is so generous to people fleeing for their lives and will continue to be.”
But after 50 years of rapid progress, the UK government is now overseeing some of the toughest immigration policies on record – from trying to process asylum seekers abroad in Rwanda to passing the Citizenship and Borders Act, which allows Britons to be stripped of their citizenship without warning and to criminalize asylum seekers Depending on how they got to the country.
While Ugandan Asians had a pre-existing right to settle in the UK, everyone had the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries, as my family was able to.
Far from a pleasant welcome, the reality was that a country that had previously recruited my grandparents directly from India to work for them, attempted to render them stateless. The limits of British welcome were distorted in 1972 to serve political ends. Today’s official immigration stance cannot be described as “overwhelmingly generous”.
The Ugandan Asians Journey shows that we must celebrate the individuals who stand up and make a difference, and not let others take credit for their efforts – then and now.