Leo Ismail spoke to Ken Olende about his experiences on arrival in Britain in 1972 as a refugee from Uganda
Some 27,000 expelled Ugandan Asians came in Britain in 1972, prompting a frenzy of racism from the press and politicians.
Soon a wave of racist attacks swept the country. Leo Ismail, who arrived in Britain from Uganda aged 17, recalls how some people went out of their way to make sure the refugees didn’t feel welcome.
“Leicester council took out a full page advert in the Uganda Argus paper that most Asians read. It said don’t come to Leicester—there is no housing or schools available. But people came anyway.”
In the east African state of Uganda a wave of scape-goating had blamed Asians for economic problems over a number of years. Then in August 1972, dictator Idi Amin gave all the country’s Asians 90 days to leave.
When people fled to Britain many came to the poorer areas of Leicester. “Most came to Highfields. That’s the normal way immigrants come to Leicester. It’s where the cheap housing is and there was already a West Indian community there so there was less prejudice.”
Though many had British passports, a deliberately racist change to British law four years earlier meant they could only gain entry on a quota system. Leo’s family were allowed into Britain on this scheme and arrived five months before the mass exodus.
Leo was shocked by their reception. “Racism was at its peak,” he said. “Young people now can’t imagine what we went through. London Road and the city centre became no-go areas at certain times.
“I soon found out that Leicester was a centre of the racist National Front (NF). Mostly of the abuse was verbal. But people were spat on and some were stabbed.
“At 17 I was taken on as an apprentice in an engineering factory, but I only lasted two weeks. I couldn’t cope with the racism. It was all ‘monkey’, ‘wog’ and ‘black bastard’. It was a terrible culture shock. I wasn’t used to being abused.
“After a few months my father called a family meeting. We all agreed to return to Uganda. Life was so horrible. But then Amin made his announcement and we had no choice but to stay.”
In response to the crisis the British government temporarily relaxed the new immigration laws and allowed refugees from Uganda in. Thousands arrived at British airports with only the clothes they stood in.
Leo said, “I volunteered at Stansted airport for three weeks dealing with new arrivals. They were very scared. It was about 15 miles from the Ugandan capital, Kampala, to the international airport.
“People told me there were about 20 checkpoints on the road. Thugs in uniform robbed you. Women were raped on the route.”
The British government provided food, clothing and temporary accommodation in disused military camps and the like. The refugees found life more difficult as they moved out.
The right wing press was maintaining a shrill mantra that Britain was overcrowded and new immigrants would destroy the economy.
The establishment felt threatened by a wave of workers’ militancy and looked for anyone but themselves to blame for the crisis.
And sections of the Labour and workers’ movement were equally hostile to black and Asian immigrants. Some thought that the bosses used immigrants to drive down wages and break union organisation.
Leo said, “Racists always blamed us for overcrowding, saying ‘pakis live 20 to a room’. We had 11 living in our house. But we had to put more people up with nowhere to stay after the exodus.
“It was crazy because we had left much better houses. In Uganda we had inside toilets and decent bathrooms. Housing was a major issue. You could find a job, but not somewhere to live.”
Leo recalled, “We really weren’t aware of the welfare state. We didn’t know you could get benefits or council housing. And Leicester council did nothing to let us know. We got no help or support, but we coped because there were lots of jobs.”
The big employer in Leicester was Imperial Typewriters. Leo, like the majority of new arrivals, got a job there.
It was a Transport & General Workers Union (T&G) closed shop. Inside the factory the union was very conservative and tended to look on the new workers as competition rather than new allies. There wasn’t one black or Asian person on the union committee.
One day in 1974 the management sacked 40 Asian women without any reason. Leo said, “We went to the union to complain. The officials told us the company had a right to hire and fire as it chooses.”
So all 1,100 Asians at the company walked out on unofficial strike. The national T&G backed the local officials rather than the strikers.
Leo remembers it was a tough time. He said, “The NF was really strong in the mid-1970s. They turned up to protest against us when we were picketing Imperial Typewriters. There were fist fights.
“We were intimidated by the police and the Leicester Mercury was full of negative reports. But we got support from the miners and the dockers, and Socialist Worker.”
The dispute was important in shifting the attitude of British trade unionists to immigrant workers. This would bear fruit with much wider support for the largely Asian Grunwick dispute three years later.
Leo remembers the legacy of the strike, and how it gave Asians in Leicester a new sense of identity and forced them to be self-reliant.
He said, “The bosses closed the factory down shortly after the dispute. Those of us who had worked there could not get a job in the city.
“If they knew you were from Imperial you not only couldn’t get a job in a factory you couldn’t get a job as a cleaner. It took me a couple of years before I found another job.”
Despite this experience Leo saw the need for workers to get together and he was elected a union official himself.
He added, “At first there was a lot of racism on the shop floor. But integration started when people met at work and more importantly when we had kids and they went to the same schools. Leicester has ended up as a brilliant example of integration.”
The legacy of empire in Uganda
When the British conquered the part of east Africa that would become Kenya and Uganda in the 19th century they brought skilled workers from India to build the railways.
The Asians came to occupy an intermediate position between the imperialists and the indigenous population.
At independence in the early 1960s most Asians chose to keep dual British citizenship. The Kenyan government insisted Asians decide where their loyalties lay. Several thousand opted to leave for Britain in 1968.
During the 1968 panic, the Labour government divided British passport holders into those born in Britain or with at least one British-born grandparent. That meant the white ones and the rest. The right of residency in Britain was removed from the rest overnight.
The scapegoating of Asians in Kenya continued but became more serious in neighbouring Uganda. On 4 August 1972, Uganda’s president Idi Amin, who had just come to power in a coup, gave all Asians in the country 90 days to leave.
Some 50,000 people were driven out in three months. The British government was forced to relax the new laws and accept 27,000 people.
Forced to leave with nothing but clothes
Zebun Hirji, lives in London. Her family was expelled from Uganda. She told Socialist Worker, “I was 16 when we left. I’d just done my exams.I didn’t even get to collect my certificate. Anything we couldn’t carry we had to leave.
“There was no question of selling our house or our business. You just had to go. At the airport it took so long to get to the plane.
Officials stopped us and took everything we had brought, except some jewellery that my mother hid in the lining of her handbag.”
Socialist Worker welcomed the refugees
Socialist Worker ran a series of articles and front pages welcoming the refugees. Though this was at the height of the upturn in workers’ struggle the labour movement was filled with debates about whether immigrants were a bosses’ tool.
One report by RK Nelson appeared in the 30 September 1972 issue of the paper, headlined “Asians get quick taste of apartheid”.
“Homeless Asians from Amin’s Uganda are not long settled at the former RAF camp at Stradishall, in the Vestry owned territory of West Suffolk, before they come across their first taste of racial discrimination,” it read.
“As they arrive at the mess quarters they are separated from the white British staff and an army of enthusiastic volunteers. The Asians eat downstairs—upstairs is for whites only.
“When I and another reporter tried to eat with an Asian family we were interviewing we were refused service. ‘Upstairs,’ the staff ordered us, ‘You can’t eat here.’ The meal-time apartheid, it should be added, has official sanction.
“The bosses have already moved in to con the Asians eager to find work. A director from Ford’s at Dagenham interviewed several and promised to let them know about £45 a week jobs within a few days.
“‘You will have to join a union if you get a job there,’ I advised one of the hopeful candidates. ‘Oh no,’ he replied innocently. ‘The man told us there are no unions, no strikes at Dagenham.’ It took me some time to explain my convulsions.”
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