30 Years
HomeHow They Did It

Special Report: How they did it

Published by the Office of the United Nations High commissioner for Refugees.
Reproduced courtesy of UNHCR.
Excerpts from the book 'Ugandan Asian Expulsion: 90 Days and Beyond through the Eyes of the International Press'

Unhcr pic

Shailesh M. stepped up to the mound and faced the batter. The pressure was on. There were two boys out, and the count was two strikes and one ball. With a motion that owed a heavy debt to his training as a cricket bowler, Shailesh pitched. The ball came in hard and fast-too fast for the batter who reacted a split second too late and struck out. Shailesh's pitching had again retired the opposing side, to the delight of the girls in the cheering section.

First as a student and now as an athlete in an unfamiliar sport, Shailesh, a displaced Asian from Uganda, was proving himself and was winning the respect and friendship of his American schoolm­ates.

Shailesh is representative of the some 5,900 Asians of undetermined nationality who had to leave Uganda at short notice in November 1972 and who as of mid-April were in the process of settling in nearly a score of countries "How They Did It" is the story of a cross-section of Asians who went to the main countries of resettlement in Europe and North America but the title could also apply to the organizations and
people who have helped the Asians to help themselves, demonstrat­ing anew the value of an international mechanism capable of organizing the migration of uprooted persons on an emergency basis.

Notwithstanding the encouraging results that the Asians have achieved thus far, it was clear in mid-April that a final collective effort would be needed to ensure the settlement of some 1,900 Asians still in European transit centres at that time. With the goodwill which abounds and the expertise available to translate it swiftly into spe­cific measures-and above all given the fibre of the people themselves-it is inconceivable that he international community should fail to offer a reasonable solution to each and every one of these individuals and families.

The Asians in East Africa are a heterogeneous group drawn from various places throughout the sub-continent that are now part of India or Pakistan. Though overwhelmingly Hindu or Moslem they also include Christians from the for­mer Portuguese enclave of Goa. Asians and Arab traders had sailed their dhows across the Indian Ocean from the earliest times, but the first great surge in immigration came at the end of the 19th century when 32,000 Asians arrived from 1896 to 1901 to build the railway across Kenya and Uganda to link Kampala and Mombasa. Some 6,500 decided to settle as craftsmen or employees in the administration.

In Uganda, Indians from the Bombay area developed cotton ginning mills and sugar plantati­ons. Ten times more numerous than the Europeans, Asians established prosperous busi­nesses and reached important administrative and economic positions. As in other parts of East Africa, they also managed to obtain certain political rights ahead of Africans. In 1949, however, the British authorities imposed a number of restrictions on immigration of Asians to East Africa, and instituted certain economic measures aimed at reducing their control over major indus­tries. Thus in Uganda, where Asians controlled 90 per cent of the cotton mills, these were purchased in 1952-53 by the Government and offered to Africans.

When Uganda obtained her independence in 1962, large numbers of Asians were given the op­portunity of becoming Ugandan citizens. Not all, however, availed themselves of this opportunity within the time limit which was stipulated.

In all the newly-independent East African countries, more or less severe restrictions were lit­tle by little imposed both on immigration and on residence of non-citizens. Doubtless a great num­ber, having obtained British passports, hoped to be able if necessary to withdraw to or settle in the United Kingdom.

Repercussions in the United Kingdom

However, the growing number of immigrants to the United Kingdom, not only from Africa but also from the West Indies, led the British Government, in its turn, to impose restrictive mea­sures in 1968. Under the new law on immigration only 1,500 British passport holders from the Commonwealth were permitted to settle in Great Britain per year.

In Kenya, steps were being taken to provoke accelerated departures of non-citizens, but on a progressive scale. In Uganda, pressures for similar measures were also building up. Nevertheless, the order given in the summer of 1972 by the Chief of State, General Idi Amin, that all non-citizen Asians should leave within three months, came as a shock. Of the thousands of people affected, many were totally unprepared for a rapid departure. While some were able to make advance arrangements to ensure their own resettlement elsewhere, others could only put their fate in the hands of the country-the United Kingdom in most cases-which had given them a passport. Those holding no passport had nowhere to turn.

In these dramatic circumstances, the United Kingdom agreed to waive temporarily the quota fixed under the 1968 law and admitted some 27,000 British passport-holding Uganda Asians. At the same time, the British Government appealed to a number of countries to accept expelled Asians as immigrants. Certain of these countries, in particular Canada and the United States, reacted positively to this appeal and arranged to select thousands of candidates for immigration on the spot, in Kampala. A large part of those admitted by Canada were British passport holders while those accepted by the USA were Asians of undetermined nationality. The former travelled direct starting in September, while the latter transited through Italy, starting in November.

Emergency evacuation

There remained all those who held neither Ugandan citizenship nor a British passport. Although their exact number was not known, they amounted to several thousand. They too had to leave the country before the deadline, fixed at 7 November 1972. In order to comply, they needed valid travel documents, a country of temporary asylum (if a permanent one could not be arranged), and the means to travel there in time. With this in view, the Uganda Government turned to the United Nations Secretary General, Mr. Kurt Waldheim, with a request for the assistance of the world body to Asians of undetermined nationality. 23 October, a mission composed of Mr. Robert Gardiner, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, and Mr. F. J. Homann-Herimberg, Regional Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New York, arrived in Kampala, to join Mr. Winston Prattley, Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme.

As a result of their negotiations with the Uganda authorities, Mr. Prattley was made responsible for organizing an emergency evacua­tion operation.

It was agreed that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would deliver travel documents to those requiring them, and that the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM) would arrange transportation to temporary or permanent resettlement countries. In the interim, at the request of the Secretary­ General, the High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadruddin Aga Khan, appealed to the internation­al community for assistance, in the form of offers of resettlement places, or of temporary residence permits, and funds to pay for the transport and the care and maintenance of the evacuees until such time as they could be permanently resettled.

Temporary residence

In response to the High Commissioner's urgent appeal for transit accommodation, a swift response was received from seven European coun­tries-Austria, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Malta, Morocco and Spain. Within 12 days, more than 3,600 persons were transported to five of these havens (the offers of Greece and Morocco did not need to be taken up). The Asians "in transit" were placed in refugee reception centres, youth hostels, hotels, holiday centres and even disused military barracks. In each country, UNHCR entered into an agreement with the responsible authorities, under which the latter undertook to provide accomodation, food and medical care against an all-inclu­sive per capita payment by UNHCR. While Government bodies assumed the main responsibility for caring for the transitees in Austria, Italy and Malta, voluntary agencies took the lead in Belgium and Spain.

Permanent resettlement

These interim measures were a palliative. The main continuing aim remained to find permanent places of settlement. As the High Commissioner, Sadruddin Aga Khan, told the press in New York on 10 November: "The worst thing that could hap­pen to any of them would be that they remain too long in limbo in transit centres. Any serious situa­tion of that kind has been avoided since the unhappy postwar days when so many camps in Europe were filled with displaced persons. "

By that time Canada and the United States had already been in the field in Uganda, closely fol­lowed by Switzerland and Denmark. Once the move to Europe was completed, attention turned to the transit centres. Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden came forward to offer permanent settle­ment opportunities along with Belgium and Austria who agreed to let some of the transitees remain. A number of Latin American States an­nounced their readiness to consider applications from candidates satisfying the criteria applicable under their regular immigration programmes.

Time passes

By the beginning of February, some 1,100 persons had left the temporary transit centres. Several hundred others were waiting to know whether they had been accepted by countries to which they had applied for resettlement. But almost 2000 others had no immediate prospect of migrating. Among them, many hoped to go to an English-speaking area, where they felt they could settle more easily; with this in mind, they had made requests for visas for Canada or the United States. Hundreds of oth­ers were separated from their families and could not take a decision committing them for the future until this primordial problem was solved. Most were heads of family who had tried, too late to obtain Uganda citizenship, and whose wives and children, on the strength of their British passports, had gone to the United Kingdom. Others had members of their family scattered among different countries: in transit in Europe, in Canada, in India, in Kenya. And then there were the aged, the infirm, the handicapped. In some cases, young people refused to accept migration offers because they were not permitted to take with them a sick mother or a brother suffering from tuberculosis. To guide and advise the Asians on the difficult choices that confronted them, UNHCR officials went to the transit centres to counsel the transitees.

The High Commissioner's action

At UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, a special task force was created under the responsibility of Mr. John Kelly, Deputy Director of the Protection Division, to handle the Uganda Asians problem. It was this unit that acted as a clearing house for information on schemes put forward by Governments and also kept the voluntary agencies abreast of developments. Meanwhile efforts were being made to raise the substantial funds needed to cover care and maintenance of the transitees ($400,000 a month was being spent for this purpose at the height of the operation) as well as their transportation. By March 31, some $2.8 million had been contributed by 12 Governments in response to the High Commissioner's special appeal.

In mid-January the High Commissioner himself visited the temporary transit centres in Austria, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. In his meetings with the Asians, he encouraged them to be patient and assured them that he would continue to spare no effort to find them permanent new homes and reunite divided families.

A few days later, the High Commissioner went to London, Washington and Ottawa to discuss with the authorities at the highest level the possibilities for further resettlement places in their respective countries. The results of these conversations were to prove most positive. On 23 February, the British Government announced it was prepared to admit the heads of families of undetermined nationality whose wives and children had already been admitted to the United Kingdom, as well as a certain number of persons whose circumstances presented strong compassionate features. On 9 April, the United States Government in its turn announced a new special quota. Canada declared that it would examine with particular care all requests from Uganda Asians, especially those coming from members of divided families.

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand announced special schemes which a few weeks later were in both cases greatly enlarged following the visit of a member of the High Commissioner’s staff. Likewise the original programmes of Denmark and Switzerland were expanded so by early April there was a kind of humanitarian chain reaction in progress. The High Commissioner, while welcoming this series of gestures, stressed that the continuance of care maintenance for those Asians still in transit centres could never be considered a solution and urged that a renewed effort be made to accord settlement opportunities to the entire residual group. "Both on humanitarian and economic grounds. this is the only reasonable conclusion," he said. "There is really no viable alternative.”