Asian refugee entrepreneurs transform the UK’s retail sector
November 10, 2008 2 Comments
On a cold and bleak morning in September 1972, 193 refugees from Uganda landed at 0930 GMT at Stansted airport in Essex. They would be the first of hundreds of flights that would carry out evacuations after Idi Amin gave nearly 90,000 Asians just 90 days to leave the country.
The Asian refugees as well as the UK government were ill prepared for this mass exodus as they had considered it as yet another empty threat by the dictator, but this time Amin carried out his threats and threw them out.
The journey out of Uganda had been long and tortuous and many of these forced immigrants arrived penniless. Even though they had businesses and property in Uganda, Amin’s edict meant that they had to sell their property at distress prices, whilst some businesses were summarily confiscated. For the lucky few who had some cash on them, they were robbed of their cash, jewellery and other belongings at army roadblocks set up on the way to the airport.
Thus due to the fact that over 50,000 of these forced deportees had British passport, many started arriving in the United Kingdom as refugees without any money or possessions.
Apart from having to face the personal trauma of the loss of livelihoods back in Uganda, these unwanted immigrants also had to face cold weather conditions, morose immigration officials, and a severely depressed economy.
In fact these refugees were so unwelcome that Edward Heath’s Conservative government had tried to convince the Indian government to take them, but the Indian government declined saying that they were Britain’s responsibility. Cabinet papers from that period even say that Heath even considered sending them as far away as the Solomon or even Falklands Islands.
Leicester a city that already had a sizeable Asian population went so far as to place ads in Ugandan newspapers, warning the Indians: “In your own interests and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda Settlement Board and not come to Leicester.” That was how welcome these immigrants through no fault of their own were.
Racism was also another challenge to be faced. Coming after the waves of West Indian immigrants and Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration “rivers of blood” speech in the late 1960s, these immigrants had to daily face cold treatment from local communities whilst graffiti like “wogs go home”, and abbreviations like “KBW” (Keep Britain White) became common sights on the streets.
The rush that precipitated their arrival also meant that many had to be housed in army camps that were set up to provide temporary refuge.
Nonetheless, even with all these factors going against them, these Asian refugees were enterprising and over thirty years since that cold morning theirs has been a story of a struggle, toil and ultimately success.
Since jobs were scarce, most of these new refugee immigrants set up businesses in derelict areas converting them into thriving businesses. The Asian work ethic has also been recognised as a factor in their entrepreneurial success. Indian corner shops became known for being “first to open and last to close” compared with the long established enterprises that were open for shorter specified hours.
By utilising all available family labour (grandparents, parents and children working together) the need to pay salaries to employ workers also assisted in keeping these businesses profitable.
Then there was the fierce determination of these pioneer entrepreneurs to regain the livelihoods they lost in Uganda. One such entrepreneur interviewed by Asianlite during the 30th anniversary of the landing at Stansted said, “I was determined to get back the high standard of living that we had lost. It provided me with the motivation to succeed.”
They also placed emphasis on academic excellence for their children of whom some are now running these enterprises.
Family and community remains paramount in this community and charitable activities persist, as a reminder that they themselves were once in that lowly position. The British Asian Uganda Trust is one such philanthropic organisation which raises money for British charities. The trust’s logo shows an hourglass in which the Ugandan flag turns into the Union Jack.
These entrepreneurs have transformed the British retail sector and today, it is not uncommon to find high street shops which are owned and run by Ugandan-Indians. Lessons we can learn from them include the power of persistence and perseverance, a desire and willingness to take the initiative, and self-reliance – the family builds the business.
Today the strong need to achieve success has resulted in a lot of positive change in the lives of these refugee entrepreneurs. Not only have they built large and thriving businesses, but some have also been recipients of awards such as OBE’s. The number of these entrepreneurs entering the Top 100 rich lists is also on the rise.
Leicester’s City Council has since apologized for those advertisements it placed in Ugandan newspapers in 1972, urging Indians not to move to Leicester. An estimated 30,000 jobs have been created by Ugandan Asian businesses in the city.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni visited the UK and appealed to the Asians to consider investing in Uganda. “Amin was wrong; don’t punish your home,” he said in an impassioned speech. Some British Asians have since made investments and returned to Uganda.
Idi Amin died in 2003 in Saudi Arabia.
Help For New Refugees
Unlike those Ugandan Asian refugees of the early 1970s, refugee entrepreneurs today have access to information on how to start and manage businesses in their host country. We found the following two sites while researching for this article:
Refugees into Business: a website which provides advice and resources on developing a business. According to the webpage, the site follows in the footsteps of Michael Marks (Marks & Spencer) and Sir Montague Burton (Burtons), among others who were refugees.
RISE (Refugee Initiative for Social Entrepreneurs): aims to unleash and encourage the potential of refugees as social entrepreneurs. The RISE programme supports refugees to set up projects that will make their communities happier, healthier, safer and more just places, as well as support refugees to achieve their full economic and social potential.