20 September 2016

Uganda’s refugees enriched Britain. Could Syria’s do the same?


The BBC may no longer have The Great British Bake Off but last week I found myself transfixed watching its ground-breaking documentary, Exodus. This is the kind of thing the BBC does better than most. The three-part series followed Syrians fleeing war torn Aleppo for the safety of Europe. Provided with camera phones to document their journey, these tech-savvy, 21st century refugees, record their attempts at crossing from Turkey to Greece, their miserable trudge through Macedonia, their welcome in Sweden and their near death experiences in the back of a Calais truck. It’s quite something to watch the faces of people, crammed onto a capsizing dinghy, slowly sinking into the lethal waters of the Mediterranean. What’s striking is to be reminded that behind the opaque status of ‘refugee’ these people are engineers, teachers and medics. As one of them says,

“We are not all poor. We just can’t live in our home anymore.”

Such is the scale of the problem, world leaders are meeting this week to address the global migration crisis.

Britain’s most celebrated offering of sanctuary to those in need was probably the Kindertransport which helped thousands of Jewish children escape the Nazis. But the most successful refugee resettlement in British history, and one with close parallels to today, may actually be the case of the Ugandan Asians in 1972. Branded as ‘bloodsuckers’ and forced to flee their homeland by Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin, the Ugandan Asians sought sanctuary in the UK. The move by Amin proved to be one of the greatest acts of economic self-sabotage, since the entrepreneurial Ugandan Asians had contributed 90% of the country’s tax receipts. Uganda’s loss proved – after some twists and turns – to be a boon for Britain. However, official papers released in 2003 show how Britain almost missed out on this economic stimulus as the Heath administration tried desperately to palm them off elsewhere.

The Ugandan crisis came just four years after Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech and the Government, concerned about race relations in the UK, did all it could to avoid taking in the refugees, many of whom had British passports. Australia and Japan were asked to take them but refused, and the Government even considered packing them off to Britain’s crown dependencies. But in the end 27,000 Ugandan Asians were settled in Britain.

Remarkably, despite many of them arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs, their entrepreneurial spirit and flair for business has borne fruit for themselves and the UK. By 1990 several Ugandan Asians had made the Sunday Times’ Rich List including PR Patel who had made £30m in pharmaceuticals, the Madhvani family, worth £55m and financial services provider Nazmu Virani worth £60m. Another, Abdel Shamji, who arrived at Stansted in 1972 with just £58 in his pocket, had built within 10 years, a business empire which encompassed large shares in Wembley Stadium, the Mermaid and Garrick Theatres, and various engineering and property interests. The Observer estimated that in Leicester alone, whose city council originally urged them to stay away, 30,000 jobs have been created through the rise of Ugandan Asian businesses. We even have the daughter of Ugandan Asian refugees sitting round the Cabinet table, Priti Patel MP.

Back in Uganda, Amin’s asset grab and nationalisation of Asian firms saw most fall into ruin. By 1997, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was asking displaced Asians to return home, but by then most had built successful lives in the UK.

This is a story about refugees rarely heard in the British media and one you would be hard-pressed to find Conservative politicians boasting about. Yet it deserves to be told more often – if only so we can learn the lessons of history. The refugee today could be the entrepreneur of tomorrow.

Watching Exodus, it’s hard not to be impressed by the determination of Syrians who have endured brutality at the hands of Assad’s police, survived the bloody civil war, escaped the clutches of Isis, navigated the bureaucracy of border crossings and risked everything to start a new life in Europe.

Yesterday Prime Minister Theresa May spoke at the UN about redrawing the distinction between refugees and economic migrants. No doubt she has her own agenda here, but the lives of Ugandan Asian refugees and the spirited energy of Syrian refugees should give us pause about whether any clear distinction can be drawn, or how helpful such distinctions are. One is not a refugee ‘for life’ – upon finding sanctuary, a new life begins. From safety comes opportunity. Bureaucrats might favour neat categories, but politicians need a broader view of the sweep of human life.

Of course those persecuted by brutal regimes such as Assad’s are fleeing for their lives, and compassion and common humanity compel us to extend a welcome, not just economic calculation.

Clearly Theresa May’s Government has to respond to the complex and sometimes contradictory views about immigration held by the British public, while also grappling with the evidence which may not accord with public perception. Control of EU immigration is likely to be a bone of contention in any Brexit deal. What the UK shouldn’t do is forsake its history of giving refuge and opportunity to those who need it.

Despite our best efforts at the time, that generous approach was rewarded handsomely by the Ugandan Asians. I can’t help but think their 2016 counterparts have much to offer the countries that give them a chance.

Joe Ware is a journalist and writer at Christian Aid