Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
East African Asians include Gujaratis and Punjabis who had migrated from the Indian subcontinent to Africa and then from Africa to the UK. They include Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Some are Ismaili Muslims, a Shi’a denomination, whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. There are some Jains and Zoroastrians. Between 1968 and 1974, the main immigration period, over 70,000 Kenyan and Ugandan Asians arrived in Britain.
East African Asians are not distinguished from other people from the Indian subcontinent in official figures.
British rule in East Africa enhanced the position of Gujarati entrepreneurs who had operated there for centuries, and also introduced a large, though mainly temporary, population of Punjabi labourers. Following Ugandan independence from Britain in 1962 and Kenyan independence in 1963, the governments introduced ‘Africanization‘ policies. The wealthy Asian middle class were an obvious target. Around 50,000 of the 80,000 Asians living in Uganda opted for British rather than Ugandan citizenship. During the 1960s thousands of Asian families from East Africa migrated to Britain. Although they had been prosperous business and property owners, those who left Kenya in the late 1960s were unable to bring much of their wealth with them. In Britain they lived in poor-quality housing and obtained low-paid work. They also found their British status did not allow them to enter Britain freely.
The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act subjected Commonwealth citizens to immigration controls for the first time. Alarmed by the influx of East African Asians, the British government tightened controls in 1968, requiring immigrants to show a close connection with the UK. In 1972 immigrants had to obtain work permits unless their parents or grandparents were born in the UK
In 1972 General Amin ordered all Asians out of Uganda, and some 28,600 out of the 50,000 British passport holders came to Britain, drawn from a variety of social classes and age groups. Many were highly successful business people and brought with them qualifications and capital that enabled them to succeed despite the constraints of racism and discrimination.
Some East African Asians invested in small general grocery and newsagent shops, which they ran as family businesses. Others invested in manufacturing and trading businesses on a larger scale.
A large number of East African Asians are in the retail distribution sector running family-owned shops. Others have become professionals in the media, law, medicine and business. Several have set up multi-million-pound businesses operating on a global scale.
The community has faced racial discrimination from the start. Those of the Muslim faith, like other Muslim communities in the UK, now have to cope with increasing levels of social prejudice since the 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda attack on the United States, the 2005 London public transport bombings and subsequent violent incidents.
Updated October 2020
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