18 September 1972: Ugandan refugees reach the UK

In the 19th century 30,000 Indians were recruited by the British to help build a railroad in Uganda. Around 2,500 workers died during construction of the “lunatic line”. Most returned home once it was completed in 1901. However, around 6,000 stayed.

Their descendants dominated commerce and textiles, accounting for around 20% of Uganda’s GDP. Their prosperity led to great resentment. In 1968, only six years after Ugandan independence, laws were passed to restrict the jobs that ethnic Indians could hold. Then, in 1971, Idi Amin seized power from Milton Obote in a military coup. Amin ratcheted up the anti-Indian propaganda, calling Indians “thieves”.

In August 1972, Amin decided to expel all Asians, giving them 90 days to leave Uganda. Many Ugandan Asians had British citizenship, so expected to be able to move to the UK, and despite political pressure, including protests from far-right groups, then-prime minister Ted Heath allowed them todo so. Of the 80,000 expelled, 30,000 came to the UK, with the rest going to India, Canada and America. Due to existing connections many settled in Leicester, although the council ran newspaper advertisements urging them not to come.

While they had lost most of their possessions and savings, the new arrivals were largely well educated. Many had management experience, and set up new firms in the UK, particularly in the textiles and jewellery sectors. Firms established by Ugandan Asians are now thought to employ around 30,000 people. Uganda itself fell into chaos and an estimated 500,000 people were killed before the mentally unstable Amin was forced into exile in 1979.

Also on this day

18 September 1838: The Anti-Corn Law Association is founded

On this day in 1838, a group of activists met with the aim of ending the crippling trade tariffs known as the corn laws that were causing misery for millions. Read more here.