Editor’s note: In 1972, Michael Molloy was a junior immigration officer at the Embassy in Beirut which was responsible for immigration from East Africa. He visited Uganda in early 1972 to evaluate the deteriorating situation. When his boss was ordered to organize the Canadian resettlement effort, Mike went along to run the selection section.)
On Aug. 4, 1972, the President of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of the country’s Indian community. Claiming he had received an order from God, Amin gave Asians with British passports 90 days to leave.
The Ugandan refugee program marked the first time Canada agreed to resettle significant numbers of non-European refugees. Canada had removed the racial barriers to immigration in 1962 and had ratified the UN Refugee Convention in 1969. In 1970, cabinet directed the UN Refugee definition be used in the selection of refugees and simultaneously adopted an “Oppressed Minority” policy permitting the resettlement of oppressed people who were not Convention Refugees because they had not fled their home country. The oppressed minority policy would be useful in Uganda.
A legacy of the British Empire, most of Uganda’s Asians carried a bewildering array of British travel documents that provided protection but no “right of abode” in the UK. By the 1970s, they numbered 60,000-80,000 and included Gujarati Hindus (50 per cent), Ismaili Muslims (30 per cent) and smaller communities: Sikhs, Goans, Punjabi Hindus, Ithnasharis, Boras and a few Parses.
When news of the expulsion reached Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau took charge and established a task force to coordinate the government’s response.
The British Government appealed for Canadian assistance. Cabinet met on Aug. 24 to set Canada’s policy. The government expected many expellees to qualify under the point system but understood this would not be sufficient.
Announcing an initial commitment to admit 3,000 persons and the dispatch of a team to Kampala, Trudeau stated:
“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.”
Trudeau set the tone for Canada’s intervention by concluding:
“For our part, we are prepared to offer an honourable place in Canadian life to those Ugandan Asians who came to Canada under this program. Asian immigrants have already added to the cultural richness and variety of our country and, I am sure that those from Uganda will, by their abilities and industry, make an equally important contribution to Canadian society.”
Canada had no facilities in Kampala, but within six days of arrival, the Canadians established a fully equipped office and a team of immigration officers, visa specialists and government doctors was in place.
On opening day, Sept. 6 1972, with 60 days to go, the lineup in front of the Canadian office stretched 10 blocks. Before the day was out 2,588 applications for families numbering 7,764 people had been handed out. A week later, a fully equipped team of Canadian Forces medical technicians arrived. In mid-September, the cabinet removed the 3,000 limit and instructed Immigration Minister Bryce Mackasey to report if the number exceeded 6,000. The first charter flight departed Uganda for a special reception centre at CFB Longue Pointe, Quebec, on Sept. 27.
In late September, followers of deposed President Milton Obote launched an unsuccessful invasion; security in Uganda deteriorated; people were desperate to leave. In addition, the Uganda government ordered Asians with Ugandan citizenship to report to verify their citizenship. Thousands were deprived of their citizenship on the spot. The Canadian team focused on these people.
As Amin’s Nov. 8 deadline approached, the pace of departures for Canada accelerated with 10 charters in the final week alone.
In all, 6,175 visas were handed to 2,116 families. Thirty-one chartered flights carried 4,420 people to Canada. Another 1,725 travelled on commercial flights.
The Ugandan expulsion, followed by the 1973 Chilean refugee crisis, convinced Canadian policy makers that refugee problems would be an ongoing challenge. Canada needed a flexible law-based system – not a patchwork of ad hoc measures.
From the provision for flexible definitions and selection criteria to the design of the refugee sponsorship program, the Uganda experience influenced the refugee resettlement system that emerged from the 1976 Immigration Act. The operational techniques pioneered in Kampala would be applied during the Indochina program of 1979-80 on a massive scale.
As for the refugees who arrived in Canada in 1972-3, they proved to be self-reliant, adaptable and highly motivated, quickly establishing their own religious and cultural institutions while vigorously engaging with their new Canadian neighbours. This community includes a senator, diplomats, lawyers, educators, academics, medical and scientific professionals and many of Canada’s most successful community and business leaders.
Trudeau’s prediction that the Ugandan Asians would make an important contribution to Canadian society proved remarkably accurate.
Michael Molloy, senior fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, is a former Director General, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and former Ambassador of Canada to Jordan.
IF YOU GO
Western’s Centre for Research on Migration and Ethnic Relations-Colloquium
Ugandan Asian Refugee Movement
Michael Molloy, senior fellow, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, former Director General, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, former Ambassador of Canada to Jordan
4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18 in UCC 315