6 Sep 2015

The day Britain took in 27,000 refugees

It was late August 1972 when Prime Minister Edward Heath was informed that the Ugandan tyrant, Idi Amin was expelling the entire Asian population from his country. Amin had given the Ugandan Asians just 90 days to get out.

Initially the UK government tried to find all sorts of alternatives to bringing the refugees into Britain. The Falkland Islands was even considered. Canada came forward to take some 6,000, other countries took small numbers, but the great majority came to Britain.

06_amin_g_wAbove: Idi Amin pictured in 1972

As the 90-day deadline approached I remember seeing pictures of rain swept figures stepping off planes at RAF bases, they carried with them a solitary bag – all that they were allowed to bring out. Most were penniless.

The main reception centre was at a dis-used RAF base at Stradishall in Suffolk. The government didn’t want do be directly responsible for the resettlement of the refugees and set up the Uganda Resettlement Board, which immediately set to work.

As today, many British families offered rooms. The local council at Bury St Edmunds, despite its own housing waiting list, managed to find buildings and homes to which refugee families could move.

Inside 90 days Britain brought in and provided a roof over the heads of nearly 30,000 refugees. These were straightened times. Enoch Powell had stirred racial tempers with his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech just six years earlier.

Today’s crisis

Britain took the crisis in its stride. Many judge the arrival and embrace of the Ugandan Asians as one of the most successful moments in UK immigration history. They have come to play a disproportionately successful role in the UK economy.

We are confronted with an even greater need today. There is no question but that the UK still possesses the resources, efficiency, and capacity to play a leading role in such a mission again. We must hope that the authorities are checking the records from the Conservative government that presided over this moment 43 years ago to see how it was done and with what remarkable consequence.

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