‘Queue-jumpers’ and ‘turning back’ refugees: The Ugandan Asian ‘crisis’ and parallels with the present

After the previous post looking at how the UK Government has dealt with refugees and asylum seekers since the 1990s, I read a very interesting article on The Guardian Australia website on how Australian Prime Minister (1975-83) Malcolm Fraser dealt with Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and the lessons for the current PM Kevin Rudd. One of points made was that the term ‘queue-jumper’ was first used offhandedly by a Liberal Party minister, but it has now become part of the popular lexicon regarding refugees and asylum seekers in Australia (as well as the UK). I thought I would post this edited excerpt from a forthcoming article written by myself and Marinella Marmo (to be published in Historical Research journal) on the origins of the phrase ‘queue-jumper’ and how it had a life as an official government term used by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the 1970s during the Ugandan Asian ‘crisis’. I think this episode in UK immigration history is also important as it highlights the internal discussions that officials had in regards to ‘turning back’ refugees and encouraging other developing countries to take people that were not ‘desired’ in the UK – topics which still dominate the discourses on asylum seeker policy in Australia and Europe today.

ugandan

In 1972, Idi Amin expelled the Asian community from Uganda and as Uganda was a former British colony, many of these Asians had United Kingdom passports. However the passports were mainly issued prior to 1968, when the law was changed to nullify these overseas-issued passports and made residential entry to Britain for Commonwealth migrants reliant upon an ancestral link to the country. Therefore many Ugandan Asians were displaced persons, expelled from Uganda and ending up in India, with most trying to enter Britain (often via another European country). The Conservative Government found themselves in a difficult position – it did accept many of the Ugandan Asians (feeling obligated to accept a significant quota as former colonial subjects and unofficial ‘refugees’), but did not want to encourage further Ugandan Asians in India and elsewhere to come to Britain.

The Ugandan Asians ‘crisis’ highlights how the British Government’s actions were influenced by conflicting interests – by moral, if not legal, obligations, as well as a desire to prevent a large number of migrants from coming to Britain. The Attorney-General, Peter Rawlinson, told Edward Heath’s Cabinet in September 1972 that ‘[u]nder international law a State had a duty to other States to accept within its territory those of its nationals who were expelled from their country of residence and were not admitted to any other country’, which ‘applied notwithstanding the controls imposed’ by the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968, which denied East African Asians (from Kenya in 1968) entry into Britain.[1] Rawlinson cited the precedent offered by James Callaghan, Labour Home Secretary in 1968, who ‘publicly acknowledged an obligation to receive such individuals if they were expelled with no prospect of any alternative refuge’.[2]

However this did not stop the British Government from encouraging other countries, primarily India, from taking the Ugandan Asian refugees. In a document prepared by the Home Office for Cabinet discussion, the Home Secretary informed Cabinet that ‘more than 50 foreign and Commonwealth Governments’ had been contacted by the British ‘to seek their help in accepting Asian for settlement or in other ways’, with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh seen as the primary destinations for the expelled Asians, but Canada also ‘made a generous response’.[3] In the same document, suggestions were made by the Home Secretary that financial incentives could have been offered to countries willing to take Ugandan Asians,[4] but other documents from the FCO show that other measures were taken in an attempt to convince India and other countries to prevent too many of these expelled Asians from making their way to Britain.

As the controversy over the displaced Ugandan Asians unfolded, Asian United Kingdom Passport Holders (UKPH) who tried to enter the UK from other countries, and were not part of the pre-determined government quota, were labelled ‘queue-jumpers’ in internal government documents.[5] Several FCO documents detail a stand-off between Britain and India over ‘queue-jumpers’ where Britain refused them entry and sent them to India, but India also refused them (as the UKPHs wanted to go to Britain). An FCO document stated that ‘Home Office Ministers have directed that these persons should be sent back a second time’, if they were sent to Britain by the Indian Government.[6] The same document added that ‘the Home Office are warning airlines and other carriers against bringing the ‘queue-jumpers’ to the United Kingdom’, stating ‘[i]t is hoped that these measures will have a deterrent effect on others who may be thinking of trying to jump the queue.’[7] Alongside those attempting to travel from India to the UK, there were also a number of Asian UKPHs stranded in Europe, with some having been sent back from Britain, usually after holding them in detention in Harmondsworth. This had been a slow process as the Government ‘did not want to do anything to upset European countries which might take Asians from Uganda.’[8] In this instance, the Migration and Visa Department noted that ‘the Government’s policy over the handling of “queue-jumpers” has been bitterly attacked by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’, arguing that ‘[t]here is reason to believe that [the] organisation is behind the recent spate of queue-jumping’, as well providing fund to stranded Asian UKPHs in continental Europe.[9]

Eventually the Ugandan Asians were predominantly settled in the UK by the end of 1974 and the episode, like the Vietnamese refugee intake in Australia in the 1970s, is celebrated as a multicultural success story. A smaller number of Malawi Asians arrived in 1976, which revived popular racist sentiments, coinciding with the rise of the fascist National Front, but this was the last significant wave of Asian migrants to the UK. However, as my previous post showed, the populist anti-refugee sentiment and government apprehension to allowing these asylum seekers to enter were recurring features that have been present in discourses on refugee and asylum ever since.

PS – I’d also advise people to read this post by Brett Holman at Airminded blog for further episodes in UK refugee history and parallels with contemporary Australian policies.


[1] Cabinet Meeting Conclusions, 7 September, 1972, 3, CAB/128/50/42, National Archives, London.

[2] Cabinet Meeting Conclusions, 7 September, 1972.

[3] ‘United Kingdom Passport Holders in Uganda,’ Cabinet memorandum, 6 September, 1972, 3-4, CAB/129/164/16, NA.

For a discussion of other Commonwealth countries’ reception of the Ugandan Asians, see: Cecil Pereira, Bert Adams & Mike Bristow, ‘Canadian Beliefs and Policy Regarding the Admission of Ugandan Asians to Canada,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1/3 (1978): 352-364; Klaus Neumann, ‘‘Our Own Interests Must Come First’: Australia’s Response to the Expulsion of Asians from Uganda,’ History Australia, 3/1 (2006): 10.1-10.17.

[4] ‘United Kingdom Passport Holders in Uganda,’ 5-8.

[5] This can be seen in numerous documents in the file, ‘Evasion of Immigration Controls by UK Citizens of Asian Origin from India,’ FCO 50/426, NA.

[6] ‘Background Note: United Kingdom Passport Holders of Asian Origin from India’, n.d., FCO 50/426, NA.

[7] ‘Background Note: United Kingdom Passport Holders of Asian Origin from India’.

A telegram from the Foreign Secretary to the British High Commission in Delhi also contemplated whether Indian legislation could transfer responsibility for compelling passengers to disembark in India (and thus preventing them from attempting to fly to Britain) onto airline pilots, although it is unclear how the Government could have persuaded the Indian Government to take such actions. Alec Douglas-Home, Telegram 564 to New Delhi, 8 June, 1973, FCO 50/480, NA.

[8] N.S. Ross, ‘UKPH from India,’ 15 December , 1972, p. 2, FCO 50/428, NA.

[9] ‘Background Note: United Kingdom Passport Holders of Asian Origin from India’.

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2 comments

  1. Referring to Ugandan Asians as “Que Jumpers” Is an Insult to Ugandan Asians who were expelled by Amin to “teach Britain a lesson ” as Britain did not want to sell him arms to attack the Vorster regime in South Africa.
    Many of the “Que Jumpers” were British citizens prior to 1962 and the ones who weren’t British were given the option of either of being British or Ugandan and Many of teh Asians had chosen British citizen ship instead . This fact is deliberately ignored by labelling British Ugandan Asians as being “que Jumpers” . Aaah! Such are the intricacies of politics versus Law .

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