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50 years ago, Uganda ordered its entire Asian population to leave

A new data set explores mass expulsions around the world

6 min

Fifty years ago, on Aug. 4, 1972, Ugandan President Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of the country’s entire Asian population, giving them just 90 days to leave. Amin accused Asians of refusing to integrate, evading taxes, discriminating against African traders and encouraging corruption. Like nationalist mantras we hear around the world today, he declared that the economy should be in the hands of Indigenous African Ugandans.

In 1970s East Africa, “Asians” referred to a broad spectrum of people with origins in the Indian subcontinent. They arrived in Uganda with British colonization — first as indentured laborers, and later as immigrants from British-controlled India. Preferential colonial policies helped this group dominate retail trade, commerce and the skilled professions. After Ugandan independence in 1962, Asian “middlemen” were a daily reminder to Africans of the legacy of colonial rule — and the exclusion of the Indigenous population in the management of their own economy.

Many of the over 50,000 Asians expelled were British nationals, but they had restricted passports that did not grant automatic entry to Britain. But nearly 20,000 were Ugandan citizens. They became stateless with the expulsion decree — denied their Ugandan nationality and not considered nationals of any other country. Expelled Asians could depart with just $120 and a maximum of 485 lbs. of personal effects. Nearly all fled to distant countries they had never known, from Britain and India to Austria, Morocco, Canada and even Latin American countries.

This wasn’t an isolated incident

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, at the end of 2021 nearly 90 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide. What makes Uganda’s expulsion of 50,000 Asians distinct? Unlike most displaced people, the Asians expelled from Uganda weren’t fleeing conflict or natural disasters.

Instead, the forced displacement that year is what political scientists call a mass expulsion. That’s when a government implements an ethnically targeted policy to remove a group of people, en masse, without individual legal evaluations and refuses to allow them to return. Although mass expulsions are rare, they continue to happen.

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In a new data set published in the Journal of Peace Research, I document 139 mass expulsion events around the world from 1900 to 2020. Far from an isolated case, the Ugandan Asian story is illustrative of a much larger problem. Over the past 50 years governments have initiated expulsions at an average rate of 1.56 per year — and expelled over 30 million citizens and noncitizens.

What countries expel?

Mass expulsions occur all over the world. Since 1900, most expulsions have occurred in Europe (37 percent). Sub-Saharan African countries have implemented about a third (31 percent) of expulsions since the turn of the 20th century, followed by governments in the Middle East and North Africa (10 percent), East Asia and Pacific (10 percent), and Latin America and the Caribbean (10 percent).

Are mass expulsions implemented only by “unquestionably evil” dictators, as The Washington Post obituary described Idi Amin? Far from it. Authoritarian and democratic regimes alike have adopted mass expulsion policies. In fact, 46 percent of expelling regimes since 1900 were what political scientists call anocracies — countries with a mix of democratic and authoritarian features. Authoritarian regimes like Amin’s Uganda comprised 37 percent of expulsion cases. And democratic countries, including the United States, France and the Dominican Republic, account for 17 percent of the cases in the data set.

Who is targeted for expulsion?

In Uganda, Amin’s initial expulsion decree targeted Asians with foreign citizenship, but he later expanded the order to include Asians with Ugandan citizenship as well. Amin was not unique in this regard. Governments often claim to exclusively expel noncitizens, but also sweep up citizens. This was the case in the United States in the 1930s and again in the mid-1950s when the government simultaneously expelled Mexicans and Mexican Americans with U.S. citizenship. Since the foundation of expulsion is the removal of certain identity groups, legal status is irrelevant (or at least less relevant) to the expelling regime.

While mass expulsion is a less extreme policy than other elimination strategies, like genocide, it’s still devastating for those affected. Uganda’s Asian expellees lost their livelihoods and life savings overnight. In the mass scramble to depart, families were separated and communities torn apart. Economic devastation, political disenfranchisement and loss of social ties were some of the individual consequences of the expulsion.

Why are Africans dissatisfied with democracy? Think corruption.

But is expulsion effective?

Given the public pressure in Uganda to return the economy to Black Africans, Amin’s “economic war” on the Asian community was domestically very popular. Yet Amin’s approach did not change life for most Ugandans. Though only 1,500 Asians remained at the end of the 90-day expulsion deadline, unequal asset redistribution left the poorest Ugandans — peasants, pastoralists and urban workers — in the same difficult economic situation as before. Amin’s military allies co-opted the income and assets of the departing Asians. And Uganda’s stable and prosperous economy turned to shambles.

Since expulsion does not address the root causes of problems governments claim to resolve, it’s not uncommon to see the same group targeted for expulsion multiple times. This was the case with Mexicans in the United States (in the 1930s and 1954-1955); Haitians in the Dominican Republic (1991, 1996, 1999 and 2015), and the Congolese in Angola (2003, 2008, 2011 and 2018).

In Uganda’s case, Amin fled the country in 1979. In 1986, President Yoweri Museveni invited the expelled Asians to return. To this day there is a vibrant Asian community in Uganda.

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Lessons from Uganda 50 years on

Reflecting on the 1972 experience of Asians in Uganda allows for refocused attention on these types of policies today. Amin’s expulsion may seem anachronistic but is emblematic of expulsion events around the world. In fact, countries expelled over 2 million people in the five years from 2015 to 2020.

Immigration policies are contentious, but per international law no country can deny a citizen their right to nationality, nor force a noncitizen out of the country without an individual evaluation of their case. Yet 50 years after Uganda’s crisis, mass expulsion persists.

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Meghan Garrity (@mmgarrity) is a political scientist who researches ethnic conflict, forced migration and nationalism. She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.