How Rishi, Priti, Suella, and others scripted British success stories

Sunak has often recounted the backstory of his family’s migration from south Asia to east Africa to Britain

By Prasun Sonwalkar/Letter from London

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Published: Sun 4 Sep 2022, 9:22 PM

There is some poignancy in the moment: When Britain is marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of nearly 29,000 Asians expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972, one of the two candidates expected to take over as the next Conservative leader and prime minister is Rishi Sunak, of east African ancestry. Bookmakers and opinion polls suggest he will lose to Liz Truss, when the election result is announced on Monday. Set aside for the moment his meteoric rise within the party since entering parliament in 2015 and his strong pitch to be the next prime minister, but the election’s sub-text reflects one of the major success stories of Britain’s policy of welcoming refugees, migrants and integrating them in society. Britain has welcomed waves of migrants over the centuries, even as migration remains a sensitive issue in public discourse, with laws and rules tightened often to respond to justified or popular concerns about being ‘swamped’ (reflected, for example, in Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968).

Sunak has often recounted the backstory of his family’s migration from south Asia to east Africa to Britain. There are thousands of such stories of how Asians expelled from Uganda or forced to move from other parts of Africa have succeeded in various sectors of British society. In particular, Uganda’s loss has been well and truly Britain’s gain. The ‘Africanisation’ drive unleashed when former colonies in Africa became independent in mid-20th century prompted a large number of Asians to leave. Their forefathers had come from South Asia to British colonies such as Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia to work as workers, traders, or civil servants. They became minorities in the newly independent African countries, where they contributed much in taxes, and soon became targets. The story of their expulsion from Uganda, their arrival in Britain under the Conservative government led by Edward Heath, and subsequent integration into society is currently being recounted in various cities.

A national commemorative event has been organised in London on September 18, one of two dates etched in the minds of Ugandan-Asians, the other being August 4, 1972, the day Idi Amin went on air to give Asians 90 days to leave the country. The first official evacuation flight organised by the UK government landed at Stansted airport on September 18, 1972. Amin, who had seized power in a military coup the previous year, claimed that the Asians were ‘sabotaging the economy of the country’, that ‘they only milked the cow, but they did not feed it’. He denounced them as economic ‘bloodsuckers’, and warned that anyone remaining after the deadline risked being imprisoned in camps. The Asian community was estimated to be responsible for nearly 90 per cent of Uganda’s tax revenues and their expulsion had profound economic consequences for the country.

The Asians, many of them prosperous with assets and businesses, were forced to abandon them. Each family was permitted to take only £55 and one suitcase per individual. Most were destined to Britain, but others moved to countries such as Canada, Germany, India, Norway, Australia and Sweden. Those who left before the 90-day deadline were estimated to be over 50,000, of who nearly 29,000 arrived in Britain to a climate of much racism and resentment. Heath resisted opposition and xenophobia from many quarters, insisting that morally and legally Britain had an obligation to accept the refugees. Later governments in Uganda condemned the expulsion of Asians and invited them to return, but not many have accepted the invitation.

Most of those who arrived between September and November 1972 were resettled via 16 temporary centres set up by the Uganda Resettlement Board. One in five settled in the east Midlands town of Leicester, which already had an Asian population. The local council was then worried that “the entire fabric of our city is at risk”, and inserted a tersely worded advertisement in a daily, warning the refugees: “In your own interests and those of your family you should…not come to Leicester”. But over the years and decades the refugees overcame challenges, revitalised local economy and culture, and the town is today held up as one of the success stories of Britain’s policies of multiculturalism.

Members of the Asian community with origins in Uganda and east Africa are in the forefront of all sectors of British society, including politics: such as Sunak, Priti Patel, Shailesh Vara, Jitesh Gadhia, Suella Braverman and Keith Vaz. Dolar Popat, who was among those forced out of Uganda, is a member of the House of Lords and the prime minister’s trade envoy to Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The wheel also turned full circle for prominent Leicester-based businessman Jaffer Kapasi, who was also among those expelled: he was appointed by Uganda as its honorary consul-general in the UK in 2016.

In March, Shailesh Vara raised the forthcoming 50th anniversary in the House of Commons, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded: “I think the whole country can be proud of the way the UK welcomed people fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda. Several members of the House, including the Home Secretary (Priti Patel) and her family, were beneficiaries of (the resettlement) scheme and that moment. This country is overwhelmingly generous to people fleeing in fear of their lives and will continue to be so”. It was a Conservative government that resettled the Uganda Asian refugees in 1972. But critics and campaign groups say it is also poignant that in today’s Conservative government, a home secretary whose family arrived from Uganda as refugees has put in place a scheme under which male refugees arriving on boats to British shores are to be sent to Rwanda.

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