The expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972

Gemma Hollman, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

Letchworth Baldock North Herts Gazette, 14 September 1972

Throughout the 20th century, Hertfordshire and the UK in general took in thousands of refugees from across the world in response to conflicts and crises. On 4th August 1972, Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian minority, the majority of whom were citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. The UK was forced to act.

The British government had taken control of Uganda in June 1894, and they had ruled it as a Protectorate until 1962. During this time, the British administration had made a concerted effort to bring in citizens from elsewhere in the Empire to help run the country. In particular, they had chosen to encourage people from British India to come over and work. Tens of thousands of Indian labourers were brought in under indenture to work on the Uganda Railway, but many were slotted in to the “middle rungs” of society in commercial and administrative roles.

The people who came from British India to Uganda were treated favourably by the British administration, who invested in their education and thus helped them to gain good jobs in banking and business. But after British rule ceased, discrimination began to grow in Uganda against the Asian, largely Indian, population left behind. While not all of the Asians in the country were wealthy, on average they were better off than indigenous communities, and tensions rose as a result. Anti-Indian slurs began to circulate and Indians were characterised as underhand cheaters.

Milton Obote, who led Uganda’s independence, served as Prime Minister from 1962 – 1966, then as President from 1966 – 1971. He directed a policy of bringing back control of Uganda into the hands of its indigenous population. As a result of this, later in the decade his government started to introduce Indophobic policies, such as work permits and trade licences for non-citizen Indians. His successor as President was Idi Amin, who took power under a military coup in January 1971. He spearheaded even more severe policies against the Asian community in Uganda by ordering a census of Uganda’s Asian population and a review of their citizenship status.

Then, in the summer of 1972, the expulsion of the population was announced. Idi Amin addressed Britain directly, saying that they had to take responsibility for the British Asians in the country, and people were given 3 months to leave Uganda. During this period, Asians in Uganda were often attacked by soldiers and had their belongings stolen. Ugandan Asians also had restrictions on selling their businesses. Later in August, this policy was extended to not just British subjects of Asian origin, but also Asian citizens of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The 23,000 Asians who had obtained Ugandan citizenship were exempt from the order to leave, but due to the tense atmosphere in the country and the intimidation suffered by all Asians, the majority chose to leave anyway for their safety.

The expulsion was condemned by countries around the world, but the Ugandan government ignored threats of sanctions. Numerous countries began to prepare for the influx of refugees, but many did not want to be responsible for those forced to leave. Kenya and Tanzania closed their borders with Uganda to stop people fleeing into them, and the UK was unwilling to take so many tens of thousands of people when it had just introduced an immigration quota. In the end, the UK took over 27,000 refugees, but some of its colonies and ex-colonies helped take in others. Several other countries also took very small numbers of refugees. It is not known where around 20,000 people went to.

With the exodus of Asians from Uganda, the government seized the properties and businesses left behind. The property was largely distributed to individuals, most of whom were in the army or government. The plan had been to redistribute the wealth that the Ugandan Asians had held to native people in Uganda, but the policy ended up causing huge economic problems in the country. The people who took over the established, successful businesses did not have the required skills and knowledge to keep them running, or they simply were mismanaged.

Whilst the expulsion of Asians from Uganda was widely condemned throughout the world, many countries were not willing to take on responsibility for those forced to flee. India threatened Uganda with consequences if they went ahead with the expulsion, but in the end they maintained diplomatic ties until later on in Amin’s regime. Although the UK did take on over 27,000 refugees, there were around 50,000 British passport holders amongst the Asian community in Uganda, and so the UK did not take them all.

This page was added on 04/08/2022.

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  • One of the best summaries of the plight of Ugandan Asians I have read recently.

    My family and I were victims of the brutal regime of Idi Amin, and i still have clear memories as an 8 year old of seeing my father lock up our shop and home as if were just going away for a few days, not fully appreciating that we would probably never return and that belongings we were carrying is all we had to travel to UK.

    All Ugandan Asians over the last 50 years have proved they have been a credit to the UK given their entrepreneurship, business skills, family values and support networks plus willingness to reboot their lives and make most of the opportunities UK have provided.

    By Sanjay Jethwa (10/08/2022)