As Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Britain would take in and resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees, many were reminded of the last time such a major resttlement programme was undertaken: in 1972, of mainly Indians expelled from Uganda.
The 1972 resettlement involved over 27,000 people, who were given 90 days to leave Uganda by Idi Amin. They left, leaving behind all their possessions, with only 50 pounds that they were allowed to take, and arrived at Stansted and other airports facing an uncertain future.
Today, the 1972 resettlement is seen as the most successful in Britain’s immigration history; many hoping that the resettlement of Syrians will eventually provide another such example of the positive impact of immigration.
After arriving at cold, windswept airports in August 1972, disrupted lives of thousands were restored amidst racism and other issues with extraordinary hard work, persistence and determination over the decades. Most were educated and possessed skills.
The families – many of Gujarat origin – and their descendants revitalised local economies in places such as Leicester and integrated in British society so well that their achievements in various public spheres are now seen as anything but normal.
The differences between the two resettlements are many and stark. Cameron announced that the 20,000 Syrian refugees would be resettled over the next four years. But the then Conservative government under Edward Heath grappled with the arrival of the full complement of over 27,000 people from Uganda in August 1972.
Cameron made the announcement amidst a wave of public sympathy for the refugees triggered by the face-down photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. Several councils and other organisations across Britain have offered help.
But the atmosphere in Britain when the Uganda Indians arrived on RAF flights was less than sympathetic. Only four years ago, in 1968, Enoch Powell had made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and anti-immigration groups had staged demonstrations against them.
The first Indians to be expelled from Uganda arriving in England; (R) One of the infamous posters of Leicester.
India had refused to accept the Uganda Indians, who had settled there for generations, working in business, railways, the British colonial government or as professionals. Most of them had British passports.
After arriving here, they were dispersed across Britain, but were officially unwelcome in some areas, such as Leicester and Ealing. The Leicester City Council advised in a newspaper advertisement that it was “in your own interests and those of your family...not come to Leicester”.
Today, the situation in Leicester could not be more different from what it was in 1972, when thousands of Uganda Indians arrived in the economically depressed, deprived and unwelcoming town in the east Midlands.
Marking the 40th anniversary of their arrival, Leicester Mercury, a leading local daily, wrote of the change in the town’s fortunes in August 2012: “Forty years ago today, East African dictator Idi Amin made a decision that would change Leicester forever. In August 1972, the leader of Uganda decided to expel all the Asians living in his country – most of whom held British passports and boarded planes for
It added: “Leicester City Council’s reaction was to place an advert in the Uganda Argus warning that Leicester was full of immigrants already and that they should not move here. However, between 6,000 and 10,000 Ugandan Asians came to the city. They brought with them a wealth of skills and business know-how that would boost Leicester’s fortunes”.
However, the celebratory discourse of immigration in Leicester also has another story: some locals do not share the enthusiasm for multiculturalism; they find themselves at a disadvantage, and believe that policies to promote multiculturalism had neglected them.
None, however, dispute the fact that the Uganda Indians settled in Leicester had revitalised its economy that provided opportunities to all over the years.
Goa-origin Labour MP Keith Vaz, who represents Leicester East, is one of many from the Indian/Asian community who hold top offices in local and national politics, business, bureaucracy and the arts (Parminder Nagra, star of ‘Bend It Like Beckam’, hails from Leicester).
The city council, inspired by the Gujarati community’s links back home, officially twinned Leicester with Rajkot in 1996.
Passengers at the Leicester train station are greeted with welcome signs in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati, among other languages, while local radio stations Sabras Radio and BBC Asian network belt out latest Bollywood numbers and interviewers with leading Indian personalities.
Recalling the 1972 resettlement, veteran broadcaster Jon Snow wrote: “Britain took the crisis in its stride. Many judge the arrival and embrace of the Ugandan Asians as one of the most successful moments in UK immigration history. They have come to play a disproportionately successful role in the UK economy”.
“We are confronted with an even greater need today. There is no question but that the UK still possesses the resources, efficiency, and capacity to play a leading role in such a mission again. We must hope that the authorities are checking the records from the Conservative government that presided over this moment 43 years ago to see how it was done and with what remarkable consequence”.