How resettlement of Ugandan Asians panned out in Canada

Some of the Asians expelled from Uganda arrive in Britain in 1972. The news of the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians was met with considerable interest across the world. Photo | File 

What you need to know:

  • Fifty years ago, hundreds of Asians expelled by Idi Amin’s government flew out from Entebbe International Airport to seek new opportunities mainly in the United Kingdom and Canada.  In this 14th instalment of our series marking the golden jubilee of the expulsion, Jan Raska illustrates how the 1972 expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, followed a year later by the 1973 Chilean crisis, illustrated to Canadian officials that refugee resettlement programmes would remain a necessity within Canadian immigration policy.

In January 1971, the government of President Milton Obote was overthrown in a coup d’état by the Ugandan military under the leadership of Gen Idi Amin.

The Asian Ugandan community was initially relieved by Amin’s seizure of power since Obote’s socialist government had planned to take a 60 percent stake in the country’s Asian-owned businesses.

However, on August 4, 1972, President Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian population. Claiming that he had received an order from God, Amin gave Ugandans of Asian heritage 90 days to leave the country.

At the time, there were more than 80,000 Asians in the country, mostly of Indian or Pakistani origins. Fearing for their personal security and those of their relatives, over 27,000 Ugandan Asians fled to Great Britain and more than 6,000 departed for Canada in late 1972.

This important movement of refugees from Uganda was one of the earliest programmes to resettle non-Europeans in postwar Canada and as such, a significant milestone in the history of refugee settlement in Canada. The first non-European refugees to be selected overseas and resettled in Canada were 76 Palestinian refugees in 1956, and 100 Chinese families from Hong Kong in 1962.

Seven years after the arrival of the Chinese refugees, Canada ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 1969. A year later, the federal cabinet directed that the refugee convention be used to select refugees and simultaneously adopted an “Oppressed Minority” policy, which permitted the resettlement of oppressed individuals who did not fit the UN refugee convention definition because they had not fled their homeland.

The policy proved useful in resettling refugees in the early 1970s. The 1972 expulsion of the Ugandan Asians, followed a year later by the 1973 Chilean crisis, illustrated to Canadian officials that refugee resettlement programmes would remain a necessity within Canadian immigration policy. As a result, the selection and resettlement of more than 6,000 Ugandan Asians between 1972 and 1973 paved the way for future refugee programmes, including the admission of over 77,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian ‘Boat People’ between 1975 and 1981.


Canadian response

The news of the expulsion of the Ugandan Asians was met with considerable interest across the world. Along with Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Australia, and the United States were all willing to grant the Ugandan Asians asylum.

In Canada, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau immediately established a taskforce to coordinate his government’s response to the crisis. Many of the Ugandan Asians carried British passports and sought to begin new lives in the United Kingdom. While British officials worked quickly to process applications for resettlement, some Ugandan Asians were soon disappointed with the reception they received from the British consular staff. For example, Jalal Jaffer, a Ugandan Asian refugee who resettled in Vancouver, recalls “lin[ing] up for five hours and then by the time you get anywhere near, they say ‘Oh no, it’s closed now. Come tomorrow.’ So, people were really, really completely shattered … when you treat people like animals, they start behaving like animals.”

On August 18, 1972, the British High Commission appealed to Western countries for assistance in getting the Ugandan Asian population out of the country. During discussions, the Canadian government expected many Ugandan Asians to meet the admission standards under Order-in-Council P.C. 1967-1616 (commonly referred to as the 1967 points system) but were aware that this would not be sufficient since processing individuals and families could take a significant amount of time.

As a result, Canada announced that it would send an immigration and medical team to Kampala to process the applicants for resettlement. At the time, Trudeau stated that “this step will enable us to form a clearer impression of the numbers involved and of the extent to which exceptional measures may have to be taken to deal urgently with those who would not normally qualify for admission.”


Screening

With a federal election looming and increasing public concern over high unemployment, Minister of Manpower and Immigration, Bryce Mackasey, was limited in the number of individuals that his department would be permitted to resettle. Mackasey had previously urged for a more considerable limit of 8,000 Ugandan Asians. A compromise of 6,000 persons was eventually agreed upon by the federal Cabinet. The Canadian government moved slowly, sensing “marked public opposition to the exercise and fearing a backlash if the Asians were granted special concessions.”

With no facilities in Uganda, immigration officials and government doctors arrived to select prospective immigrants. Within six days, Canada had established an office full of immigration officers, visa typing specialists, and Health Canada doctors to examine the applicants. The Canadian office opened its doors on September 6, 1972, to a lineup of applicants that spanned 10 blocks.

Jalal Jaffer recalls the Canadian government sending “a small team to help the British by taking in some of the refugees and the experience at that office was markedly different … They provided chairs on the street so the people lining up in the hot sun could sit down and even served them water…”

Immigration officer Mike Molloy noted that in late September 1972, two instances shaped the character of the programme. First, followers of deposed President Milton Obote staged a failed invasion, which led to bloodshed and a general deterioration of army discipline. Second, Amin ordered Asians with Ugandan citizenship to report to have their citizenship confirmed.

This ploy permitted the military to seize the documents of those who had followed instructions to report. As a result, thousands of Ugandan Asians were rendered stateless. The Ismaili Muslim community, which made up 30 percent of the Asian community in Uganda that had previously opted for Ugandan citizenship, rather than remain British citizens after Ugandan independence, was hard hit by the loss of citizenship.


“Humanitarian considerations”

Canadian officials believed the highly-educated and multilingual Ugandan Asians would meet the requirements of the points system, but were hesitant to solely depend on this piece of legislation to admit the Ugandan Asians to Canada. As a result, Canadian officials in Kampala were urged by Ottawa to use “humanitarian considerations” in an effort to resettle desirable applicants who might not otherwise be admitted into Canada. Seven airplanes were fully loaded with selected applicants and departed the week of October 22.

Another 10 charters departed Kampala for Canada during the week of October 29. With the expulsion deadline of November 6 fast-approaching, Canada granted 6,175 visas to 2,116 families.

In all, 31 charters carrying 4,426 individuals left Uganda for Canada. Later, another 1,725 Ugandan Asian refugees decided to find their own way to Canada on commercial flights from the United Kingdom and other countries in which they had been stranded after their expulsion. Three days after the Ugandan expulsion deadline of November 6, 1972, Canadian officials emptied their office and departed for home.


Resettlement in Canada

Many of the Ugandan Asians that Canada selected for resettlement had university degrees from England. Ginette Leroux, a Canadian visa worker, helped hand out over 2,600 immigration applications during her four weeks in Kampala. Leroux recalls that “they were very pleasant people and they were very educated people. I think we were lucky to get them … I think as far as immigrants and immigration goes, we got the cream of the crop.”

Most of the Ugandan Asian refugees arrived at Montreal, and were temporarily accommodated at Canadian Forces Base Longue Pointe, where they were interviewed, fed, and given information about resettlement in Canada. Other Ugandan Asians flew to Toronto where they were the next morning taken to Ontario House, a reception centre, where they were given coffee and winter clothes.

Immigration officials went about sending individual refugees and families to cities across the country. In many cases, the refugees were resettled in cities where they had friends, family, or business contacts.

Eleven committees—including national, provincial, and municipal representatives—were established to assist the refugees during their initial resettlement. By the end of 1973, more than 7,000 refugees were resettled in Canada. Officials in Ottawa were quick to assist in resettling a further 2,000 Ugandan Asians who had become stateless during the 90-day eviction period, many of whom thought they had successfully requested Ugandan citizenship after independence from Great Britain in 1962. With no passports, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees temporarily sheltered the refugees in Spain and Malta before Canadian officials permanently resettled them.

In a follow-up interview a year after their arrival, 89 percent of Ugandan Asian respondents who wished to be employed had found work, and 90 percent of respondents intended to permanently stay in Canada.


The “Oppressed Minority” policy


In 1970, the federal Cabinet directed that the recently signed UN refugee convention be used to select refugees for resettlement to Canada. The federal Cabinet simultaneously adopted an “Oppressed Minority” policy that permitted for the resettlement of individuals who did not meet the UN definition of a convention refugee, because they had not fled their homeland.

The policy was used in the fall of 1972 when over 80,000 Ugandan Asians were expelled by Amin and given 90 days to leave the country. Ultimately, 31 charters carrying 4,426 individuals left Uganda for Canada. Later, another wave of 1,725 individuals boarded commercial flights destined for Canada. The federal government successfully resettled over 7,000 Ugandan Asians in 1972-1973.

The 1972 expulsion illustrated that refugee resettlement programmes would remain a necessity in future Canadian immigration policy.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.