Expelled Ugandan Asians

Histories & Mysteries: 50 Years since Ugandan Asians came to Devon

Ross Tibbles
Ross Tibbles

By Ben Fox

In August 1972, Uganda’s leader, Idi Amin, issued an order requiring Asians living in the country to leave within 90 days. This sparked a mass exodus of nearly 80,000 Ugandan Asians seeking refuge in countries all over the world.

The first evacuation flight landed at London’s Stansted Airport on 18th September, 1972, and 50 years later, British Ugandan Asians have excelled in fields such as business, finance, politics, science, and the arts.Initially, over 27,000 people arrived in the UK, where many were housed in temporary camps, including 2,500 at Heathfield near Honiton and Plaisterdown near Tavistock.Almost all of the families who were initially housed in the South West were relocated to other areas of the country. However, a few families have chosen to make Devon their home.Among them are Manoj Chitnavis from Exeter, Deepashri Elsen from Dawlish and Bill Meswania from Plymouth.Many of the families went from a settled, comfortable and enjoyable life in the tropical sunshine to living in cold, draughty army huts, some on the outskirts of Dartmoor.

Almost overnight, the Ugandan Asians had to adapt to a foreign way of life – a different climate, different language and a different diet. But it was also a learning experience for the many volunteers who were on hand to welcome families to the resettlement camps.

Bunty Charles was the co-ordinator of the WRVS volunteers in Honiton and remembers the experience well. “We worked like demons,” she said. “It’s an awful thing to say, but it was probably the happiest time of my life.” For a group of people who had Indian origins, who had spent their entire lives in Africa and now faced an uncertain future in Britain, it was probably the biggest upheaval of a lifetime.

Having secured £72,700 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, a new website will unite the filmed oral histories of surviving volunteers from the reception camps. They include Heathfield in Devon, Tonfanau in Wales, and Stradishall         in Suffolk.

The volunteers formed part of a response involving 63 voluntary organisations which, at their peak, staffed 16 reception and resettlement camps across the UK. British Ugandan Peer Lord Jitesh Gadhia said: “I welcome this important project to capture the stories of the amazing volunteers who helped Asians fleeing Uganda in 1972.

‘The generosity of spirit of the British people is worthy of being captured properly for the benefit of current and future generations. The 50th anniversary is a moment to express our community’s eternal gratitude to all those who supported us in our hour of need.”

The film collates candid evacuee testimonies, surviving individuals from the camps and leaders of the British Ugandan Asian Community.

An online archive of documents and photographs will complement the film and become a resource for future generations. BUA@50 has called on members of the Ugandan Asian community to come forward with their testimonies and add their contributions to the celebrations.

In addition to the grant project, the objectives and scope include:
having a national reception to celebrate the achievements of the British Ugandan Asian community and their contribution to British life;

digitalising and archiving government and private documents on the exodus – for posterity in an open-access online format;

educating British communities about the circumstances of the Ugandan expulsion and the British Ugandan Asian community’s contribution to the fabric of modern British society;

creating ongoing collaborations to foster research into the Uganda Exodus, East African migration to the UK in general, migration and diaspora studies;

the organisers hope the project will foster British East African Asian cooperation and identity as a group.

What’s the history behind the expulsion?

By the time Idi Amin proclaimed in August 1972 that all Ugandan Asians had 90 days to leave the country and could only take £50 with them, they no longer had any automatic right of entrance to the UK.

Only after great international pressure was applied did Ted Heath’s Conservative government assume responsibility for all UK passport-holding Ugandan Asians and allow them to enter the country. The newly arrived became the duty of the Ugandan Resettlement Board (URB), which was tasked with finding homes and jobs for those compelled to evacuate. This was not a simple task. The arrival of 28,000 Ugandan Asians in Britain during the autumn and winter of 1972–73 occurred at an unfavourable economic time. Things were changing after three decades of post-war affluence, near-full employment, and economic development. Housing was scarce, and unemployment was at its highest level in decades. This provided fodder for opponents of immigration and sparked anti-immigrant protests in cities across the United Kingdom.

The National Front was just one of a number of anti-immigrant organisations that took advantage of such sentiments, combining rising prices, economic difficulty, and uncontrolled immigration into a toxic mix of racism and street action.
There were those who argued that families were unwelcome immigrants, taking housing, jobs and resources from hard-pressed Britons. And it was the government’s reaction to such attitudes that resulted in the policy of dispersal.
To ease tensions over the new arrivals, the URB divided the country into ‘red’ and ‘green’ zones, with ‘red’ areas receiving no expellees and ‘green’ areas receiving newcomers.

The red zones, which included the major Midlands towns and the majority of London, already had significant populations of newly arrived international migrants, including established and growing Asian communities. Not only did these areas have a lot of job opportunities, but they also had existing shops, places of worship, and cultural events for their new Asian residents.

Instead of seeing these as reasons to encourage Ugandan Asians to settle in these areas, the URB declared them ‘full’. Volunteers were drawn from all strata of British life, and more than 30,000 people became involved in reception and resettlement efforts.

Volunteer rosters included representatives from the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Catholic Committee for Racial Justice, the Indian Workers’ Association, the Zoroastrian (Parsi) Association of Great Britain, and the British Council of Churches, as well as newer groups such as the League of Overseas Pakistanis and the West Middlesex British Asian Relief Committee, demonstrating the richness and diversity of British life at the beginning of the 1970s.

Despite the fact that the URB provided core funds and an administrative structure for the reception effort, volunteers served as advisers, baggage handlers, clerical workers, and telephone operators, as well as organising activities and social events.
As expellees struggled to make sense of their new surroundings, Gujarati-speaking volunteers played an important role as interpreters. The URB had no powers to force councils or individuals to allocate housing or employment to the expellees.
Rather, the URB relied on goodwill and sympathy with the Ugandan Asians’ plight to generate offers of homes or work from councils or employers.

It looked to local voluntary organisations to prepare those houses for habitation and to make expellees feel at home. In many towns, it was the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) that worked to source clothing, bedding, electric fires and heaters, while the dietary needs of the newcomers led local volunteers to put some effort into finding specialised kitchen equipment and utensils for cooking Indian food.

Sudeep Kaur Bone’s family moved into a council house in Thetford, an experience that she remembered very positively: “The local community gathered up, I think through the church and all that, and we were given a council place and completely furnished… to a point where they even got the food for the first week… And there was another, a Punjabi family, they came and they brought the lentils and… the dahls and the spices and everything for us.”

In addition to receiving assistance with these practical difficulties, families were required to seek employment and enrol their children in school, often while confronted with language barriers and what appeared to be a vast cultural divide.
Local volunteers in Preston arranged for a female English tutor to visit women in their homes, while local churches, led by the Methodists, ‘adopted’ individual families, visiting them on a regular basis, inviting children to join youth and sports clubs, and acting as an informal point of contact.

Such gestures of hospitality and welcome were critical for those taking their first steps in their new lives in the United Kingdom.