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Fifty years on from the expulsion of Asians by Idi Amin, Uganda’s loss is Britain’s gain

1972 Southall, London: “First Asians Arrive” | Alamy

4 min read

Ugandan Asians have done a lot for Britain and are proud to be British – and above all, we have never forgotten the lifeline that was extended to us

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of nearly 28,000 Ugandan Asians by president Idi Amin. It seems almost astonishing to me that it was so long ago. My own flight from Amin’s regime happened a little earlier, in May 1971, four months after he seized power. My family had seen the way things were going and I was very lucky to get out, arriving in Britain with £10 in my pocket and, I must confess, a rather naïve attitude. For a long time, I worked in a Wimpy bar, before eventually making my way, first as an accountant and then a businessman and Conservative Party activist, to the House of Lords.

The fact I am now far from being alone as a former Ugandan Asian in both Houses, it seems apposite to reflect on the participation of Ugandan Asians in Parliament. On the occasion of my ennoblement in 2009, a fellow Ugandan Asian, Lord Sheikh, was one of my sponsors, walking me into the chamber to read out my pledge. I discovered I was suddenly on a two-line whip that day, so wasn’t able to join friends for a celebration at home until 9.30pm!

But even in entering Parliament, I was already among friends: others who’d fled the hell of Amin’s Uganda to make a successful life in Britain and more others still, born in Britain, who made this country a welcoming place for us. People such as Shailesh Vara, who has retained his North West Cambridgeshire seat since 2005 and held significant positions in Conservative governments. People such as Sir Peter Bottomley, the current Father of the House. He and his wife Virginia (a cabinet minister at the time and now Baroness Bottomley) were among those many Britons who took in Ugandan Asian families.

As Sir Peter said in a debate on a previous occasion of this anniversary, in 2012, one secured by the same Shailesh Vara MP: “My wife and I were delighted to go to an RAF camp in Kent to collect Razia and Roshan Jetha, who came to live with us for a year and a half. We learned a great deal from them, and I was also grateful for the £5 a week they gave us, which helped with the housekeeping.”

The broad welcome exemplified by the Bottomleys was largely a consequence of a tradition of British hospitality, specifically hospitality to refugees (as previously seen during the Second World War). But it was also the consequence of a swift and resolute decision by a Conservative government – and the Ugandan Resettlement Board that was set up by the then prime minister Edward Heath.

My family had seen the way things were going and I was very lucky to get out

This was on the basis that many of those coming to Britain, arriving at Stansted and Heathrow, in Vara’s words, “frightened, homeless, penniless and with only the clothes on their backs,” already had British passports. It’s important to remember that, at a time when the present government faces really difficult decisions about refugees,  vast migrant flows are managed by another child of emigrant Ugandan Asian parents, Home Secretary Priti Patel.

All that remains – and it’s a big task – is for me to list some of the other Ugandans active in Parliament: Baroness Vadera, Lord Verjee, Lord Gadhia and former archbishop Lord Sentamu. And, on so much larger a scale, the massive Ugandan Asian contribution to the economic and civic wellbeing of this country. 

We have done a lot for Britain and are proud to be British. I don’t much like harping on about identity, as it causes so much trouble and venting of nonsense; but I will stress that our former Ugandan Asian identity has been subsumed into our British identity and, I hope, strengthened British identity in the process. Above all, we have never forgotten the lifeline that was extended to us. 

Now the challenge is for following generations of British Ugandan Asians to look forward to the future, actualising the beliefs in enterprise, family and community that our little but energetic group shares with so many other communities in this wonderful country. We are all linked together, something Amin was not aware of when he made that fateful mistake of expelling Ugandan Asians half a century ago. 

Uganda’s loss is very much Britain’s gain.

Lord Popat is a Conservative peer and trade envoy to Uganda

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