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How 28,000 people fleeing Uganda under Idi Amin were taken in by Britain including some at West Malling Airfield

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has left millions of civilians without a home and in desperate need for somewhere to live in peace while war rages on in their home country.

The UK has been criticised for its response to this refugee crisis. Especially when it was only 50 years ago, when military dictator Idi Amin decided to expel all the Asians from Uganda, that our government responded quickly to help those in desperate need.

Ugandan refugees arriving at Greenham Common
Ugandan refugees arriving at Greenham Common

Some 60,000 Asians, of mainly Indian descent, were given just 90 days to leave.

General Amin allowed them to take only £55 with them. He amended the order after a few days, commanding that those who were doctors, teachers, scientists or other valued professionals were not to leave - on pain of death if they attempted to do so.

The rest he accused of "milking the Ugandan economy". Although the Ugandan Asians were a small proportion of the overall population, they did own around 90% of the country's businesses at the time.

In an international response to the expulsion, Canada, India, Kenya, Malawi, Pakistan, West Germany, the United States, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Mauritius, New Zealand and even the Falkland Islands agreed to take in some of the refugees, though none actually took up the offer from the Falklands.

Uganda's neighbour Tanzania closed its border with Uganda to prevent any refugees crossing.

By far the biggest number – 28,608 – came to Britain.

Ugandan Asian arrive in Britain in 1972
Ugandan Asian arrive in Britain in 1972

Prime Minister Edward Heath's government established the Uganda Resettlement Board which set up emergency reception camps at 16 locations across the country, mainly under-used airfields, to house the refugees until they could be found more permanent accommodation.

Most of the camps and the services they provided were staffed by volunteers from the local community. The government felt it had to tread a delicate balance between helping the refugees, and potentially encouraging racism if it showed them too much favour over the indigenous population.

There was already considerable disquiet in British society with unemployment running at 10% and the right-wing National Front party performing well in the polls.

Of those that arrived, 6,621 made their own arrangements, mainly going to stay with relatives already here.

The other 22,000 were placed in a "resettlement centre".

One such centre was at the former West Malling Airfield (now the Kings Hill estate) where unused accommodation blocks were converted for use as temporary homes.

The late Duke of Edinburgh visiting the West Malling camp in 1972
The late Duke of Edinburgh visiting the West Malling camp in 1972

It opened on October 4, 1972, and at its peak housed 840 refugees. It was the last of the 14 camps to close, on January 15, 1974, when the last of the people were found a home.

Pragna Hay, whose family were taken to Greenham Common Camp in Newabury before being offered a house in Redditch, is collecting oral histories from people who arrived here in the seventies.

Explaining what life was like to Newbury Today, she said: “My father was just 40 years old and my mother 33 at the time. They had to leave their home, business and the life they had built behind them.

“The experience was horrific. Idi Amin was ordering Asians to be shot, robbed and raped.

“People’s lives were completely changed overnight.

“Living on the equator we were used to 12 hours of daylight, but here we were in our new home.

“We learnt a new way of life, a new language, new customs and a new beginning.

Idi Amin lost power in 1979 after a military insurgency backed by troops from Tanzania.

He went into exile first in Libya and then in Saudi Arabia where he died in 2003, aged 78.

A subsequent and current president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, condemned Amin's policy and invited Asians to return to the country.

Sir Roger Gale MP
Sir Roger Gale MP

Many would like to see this same level of help and solidarity offered to those who need to escape Ukraine now.

North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale this week took the Home Secretary to task over the pace of the government's plans to take in Ukrainian refugees.

He reminded Priti Patel of the camp set up at West Malling half a century earlier, asking: "If we could do it then, why not now?"

Mr Gale said: "The British people want to help, and we can."

"Manston airport in my constituency is mothballed, but the owners have told me that they are prepared to make it available. The runway can be swept and cleared within half a day.

"With the back-up of Kent Fire Brigade, Manston can then be used to fly in refugees from Ukraine and from Poland."

"Next door to Manston is a Home Office facility that is capable of processing 1,000 people a day.

"It also has food facilities and accommodation. I urge the government to take on board the fact that those facilities are available.

"We do not have the time to wait; the people we are trying to assist do not have the time to wait. We can do this now."

As of Friday, according to data from the UN Refugee Agency, 2,504,893 people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded.

Poland has taken in 1,524,903.The UK only 1,000.

If you were one of the refugees who came to the UK in 1972 please get in touch with Pragna via email at pragna1@pm.me if you would like to help her collect an oral history.

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