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WE REFUGEES Redefining Britain's East African Asians





WE REFUGEES?
Re-defining Britain's East African Asians
Saima Nasar

As a coda to decades of Africanisation policies, thousands of East African Asians were confronted with mass displacement dunng the 1960s and 1970s. I Popularly associated with the Ugandan Asian expulsion in 1972, when Idi Amin enforced a series of presidential decrees that called for all South Asians  to leave Uganda within just ninety days, this displacement took place irrespective of citizenship status. It followed the propagation of inflammatory

rhetoric, such as the notion that South Asians were a self-segregating community of bloodsuckers' that had 'sabotaged the economy'c? Patterns of Ugandan
Asian deracination could be traced, and indeed were mirrored elsewhere in the
region. Faced with social, ethno-political and economic persecution, South
Asians were also excluded from the new nation states of Kenya and Tanzania.
Altogether, approximately 103,500 East Africa Asians relocated to Britain
during this period.

In John Buff's Island Cohn Holmes described the 'frightening elasticity' with
which immigrants have been defined and classified.I This elasticity is strikingly evi-
dent in the historiography of Britain's EastAfncan Asian population. In the chaotic
politics of decolonisation, border enforcements were used to order populations and
to redesign the parameters of national citizenship.As imperial power diminished
and post-independent nation states emerged, Britain, alongside Kenya,Uganda and
Tanzania, exercised the power to exclude. Accordingly,over the last sixty-year period,
East African Asians have been discursively constructed and then reconstructed as
subjects, citizens, aliens, exiles, others and refugees. Their narratives of multiple
migrations have been told and re-told by all kinds of social and political actors,
be that behind official parliamentary doors, at the European Court for Human
Rights or in community centres, museums and living rooms across continents.
More recently, there has been an attempt by community historians to re-fashion

Re-defining Britain's East African Asians 

139bpopular projections of the 'East African Asian refugee' as a 'model minority'. In the
process of doing so, and as this chapter will set out, they have variously questioned,
reinforced, absorbed, challenged and subverted the refugee label Much like Hannah
Arendt sets out in her influential essay 'We Refugees', which lends its title to this
chapter, East African Asians have sought to re-define their ascribed refugee status on
their own terms." In particular, commemorative projects have been used to repro-
duce the Mr Cohn character, which Arendt describes as the ideal transnational mul-
tiple migrant who, having shed the deficiencies of refugeedom, is deeply patriotic
in every country, he resides. Having faced the realities of statelessness, the migrant is
recognised as a zoon politikon, a political animal.

Contemporary historians have inherited from these synchronic and diachronic
perspectives an extraordinary archive of mostly untapped private papers, reports,
petitions and conversations. The processes of East African Asian identity formula-
tion will therefore be used to shed light on the re-negotiation of minority iden-
tities.This chapter begins by exploring the historiography on Britain's East African

Asians and the elasticity with which they have been classified. It elaborates on the
ways in which scholarly analysis, and broader political discourse, has evolved since
the 1960s. It then turns to forms of self-representation and British East African
Asian attempts to question the refugee label and establish a new identity as a 'model
migrant'. In so doing, this chapter interrogates the role of migrant classifications in
the struggle for meaning and belonging.
From subject to citizen
Prior to their forced migration in the 1960s and 1970s, East African Asians were
deemed British subjects and imperial citizens of the Commonwealth. With the
passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act, a new identity was brokered for
British subjects. The concept of a shared Commonwealth citizenship was espoused,
which privileged Britishness above any and all other national affinities. Residents
of the Empire swore allegiance to the crown - they were British subjects and
Commonwealth citizens first, and local citizens second.
While as a cornmon status Commonwealth citizenship served to hold together
the 'octopus power' and sought to invoke a shared identity, the uncoupling of citi-
zenship from national identity in this way meant that, technically, the British gov-
ernment inadvertently opened the door to any person who was living anywhere in
the Empire. East African Asians were no exception. Britain pledged responsibility
for East Africa's minority South Asian population and repeatedly assured them that
their citizenship status was not under threat - even in the event that they were
displaced. As set out by Ann Dummeu and Andrew Nicol, 'subjecthood signified
a personal link. It was a vertical relationship between monarch and individual, not
a horizontal one between members of a nation or citizens of a body politic." In
an attempt to consolidate and espouse British imperial strength, the British East
African Asian subject was horn.

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