BLOG: what’s the wider story behind Leicester’s migration history?

Fifty years ago Leicester welcomed up to 28,000 South Asian UK passport holders from Uganda. The anniversary was marked by a series of public events in autumn 2022, under the banner Migration and the Making of Leicester.

Here, John Williams, from the University’s Department of Sociology, School of Media, Communication & Sociology, reviews the events and their impact, in the light of recent disturbances in the city.

BBC Four’s Today’Programme Comes to Leicester

I’m thinking that you might have been as startled as I was to be lying in bed on the morning of Friday 2 December listening to BBC Four’s national flagship morning news programme, Today, broadcasting directly from the local radio studios in Leicester! Its focus was on the impact on local people of the economic downturn, the condition of local industries, including hosiery, and the strain on NHS and other local medical and care services. But there was also celebration of Leicester’s diversity, as well as some vox pop and ‘expert’ analysis on the uncharacteristic recent disturbances in the city involving young men from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds. The mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, batted away speculation about possible causes, but he was also questioned about delays in getting his proposed official inquiry into the roots of the troubles underway.

Despite such concerns, Leicester clearly remains a very popular place to study, work and live. The 2021 Census data confirm that the local population has increased by a meaty 11.8%, from around 329,800 in 2011 to 368,600 in 2021. This is close to double the overall population increase for England (6.6%) of just under 3.5 million, to 56,489,800. 

Leicester is also one of the first cities in the UK to boast a majority of its residents who self-identify differently than white. This was another reason, of course, for the BBC’s visit. The new ONS figures show that 40.9 per cent of people in the city self-describe as white, 10 per cent lower than since the last census, in 2011. The largest ethnic group in the city now comprises people from a South Asian background, with a rise of 6.4 per cent since 2011, to 43.4 per cent. Outside of some areas of London, the highest ‘minority’ ethnic populations in the UK are now in Slough in Berkshire (64.0 per cent), followed by Leicester (59.1 per cent), Luton (54.8 per cent) and Birmingham (51.4 per cent). Commenting on these new figures, Sir Peter Soulsby said that he was, ‘very pleased and proud’ that Leicester exhibited increasing  diversity – despite, that is, its limited recent difficulties.

Migration and the Making of Leicester

But what is the wider story here?  Well, Leicester has a long history of in-migration from many parts of the world.  However, a key moment in its modern history was certainly the arrival in the UK from Uganda in 1972 of up to 28,000 South Asian UK passport holders, people expelled by president Idi Amin. The city council’s advertising campaign designed to deter new migrants from coming to Leicester seemed to have the opposite effect. Instead, over 10,000 Ugandan Asians eventually arrived in the city, a largely skilled, educated and aspirational community, one whose arrival helped transform the city into the successful, integrated, and still growing, urban centre it is today.

On the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan South Asian expulsion, members of the Migration Network and the Unit for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement (DICE) at the University of Leicester identified this as an occasion for jointly organising a series of public events in the city in the autumn of 2022. They were held on campus and in local community venues under the banner Migration and the Making of Leicester.

The aim here was to explore not just the events of 1972 but also the experiences of different migrant communities in different parts of the city, both historically and in the present. These public forums represented the wider history of post-war migration and settlement in shaping contemporary Leicester, including a focus on those people who had arrived earlier from the Caribbean, and later from East Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the countries of Eastern Europe, Somalia, and from conflict zones around the world.  All these arrivals have contributed to giving Leicester its characteristically complex and inclusive cosmopolitan identity.

It became very clear in the discussions we had with different local communities how much they welcomed our interest. Migrants’ individual stories and collective narratives have commonalities, while also being quite different from each other.  We were alerted to important generational differences in both experience and outlook, between the frequent optimism and resilience of the first generation who arrived here, and the more common frustrations of children and grandchildren who have grown up in the area.  We hope the connections made through these events will offer a basis for fruitful future partnerships with local agencies, community groups and residents.

The Five Public Events

Due to the Queen’s death in mid-September the event at the Highfields Centre on 22 September, focusing on Caribbean people and their local experiences, became the first in the series.  Actually, this new ordering was entirely appropriate, given that this was the first substantial new migrant community to arrive in the city in the post-war era. In front of an engaged and lively audience of mostly Caribbean heritage, and chaired by Dr Natalie Darko from the University of Leicester, the evening kicked off with Dr Margaret Byron, associate professor in Human Geography, and a presentation on her interview-based research into early Caribbean settlement in Leicester.  Dr Paul Campbell, associate professor in Sociology, then spoke on the historic importance of the Highfield Rangers football club, particularly as a focus for identity formation over time for young British Caribbean men. Finally, Iris Lightfoote, Director of the Race Equality Centre (TREC), presented on the historic and current work of TREC. She also spoke of when she moved to Leicester, and the considerable racism her community encountered in local schools in the 1970s. That theme of racism in the city, and the Caribbean community’s resilience in facing and overcoming it, was also the focus of the audience discussion.

What was planned to be the official launch event, chaired by Professor Bernard Ryan from the Migration Network, eventually took place on the University campus on 13 October before an audience of over 120 people. In his opening remarks, the Vice Chancellor highlighted Leicester’s role as a University of Sanctuary, with a proud history of supporting multiculturalism and diversity in the city.  Professor Surinder Sharma for DICE added his own experiences over 40 years as a citizen, city councillor, and academic researcher. The city mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, then spoke of the evolution of the local political stance, from the council’s original position of taking out press adverts to discourage new arrivals in 1972, to its later celebration of the diversity of the city’s population. The author and commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown described with passion her own experiences, having left Uganda as a student ahead of the 1972 expulsion. She highlighted the resilience and successes of the Ugandan Asian community, while also calling for honesty on the privileged place it had occupied in the colonial socio-economic structure of Amin’s Uganda.  A key question in the Q&A was how, practically, relations between different communities in the city could be improved.

One week later, on the evening of 20 October, a large group of residents, key workers and local professionals from the Narborough Road area of the city gathered in the Westcotes Library for the latest event, chaired by John Williams of DICE.  They had a treat in store. Werner Menski, Professor Emeritus in Law at SOAS in London, presented a sequence of fascinating and unique maps of settlement patterns of different minority communities in and around the centre of Leicester in the 1970s. He argued that the input from a range of social actors, including new arrivals and planners, serves to create new spatial/social and economic structures in areas such as this one.  Professor Suzi Hall from the LSE, explained how her research in the area in 2015 had led the UK tabloid press to describe Narborough Road as: ‘The most diverse street in Britain.’ She highlighted the sense of place occupied by aspirational migrant communities, suspended as they often are between the demands of being, simultaneously, mobile and immobile. Finally, Barbara Czyznikowska, founder and Chair of Project Polska in Leicester, provided a grounded and insightful presentation on the everyday lives of people of Polish heritage in the area. In response to audience questions about cohesion and integration, she explained that, even today, Polish migrants often maintained strong language, cultural and emotional links with Poland, and so effectively lived ‘between’ their neighbourhoods in Leicester and ‘home.’

Another week on, this time in the St Matthews area of the city on 27 October 2022, a mainly Somali crowd of over 60 people focused on a discussion of the Somali experience in Leicester.  It was chaired by Dr Idil Osman of MCS and had a panel of three speakers.  Hashim Duale MBE, co-founder of the Daryeel Autism organisation, spoke of how the Somali community in Leicester mostly arrived from other European countries after gaining citizenship there. He highlighted how decisions to migrate again were often driven by socio-economic, identity and religious reasons.  Jawaahir Daahir MBE, the operations manager at Compass Fostering and a community leader, confirmed that the local Somali community was able to take advantage of the existing religious infrastructure that previous Muslim migrant communities had established in Leicester. She argued that, whilst tackling racism and discrimination in the city remained priorities, the multicultural make-up and strong support for inclusivity makes Leicester - and the UK as a whole - more hospitable and tolerant for migrant communities than many other European countries. Finally, David Brazier of the Leicester Social Enterprise Consortium, a former councillor and chair of the local housing renewal committee, focused on the lack of accommodation available for the community when Somalis began to arrive in the city in the early 2000s. Their often larger, families, made it difficult to find suitable housing, so Somalis were dispersed across the city and encountered plenty of racism.  But St Matthews was now a community centre for Somali migrants. The attendees added much value with their testing questions and comments, made richer by the fact that many of them had lived experiences of the issues the speakers had highlighted.

The final event in the series was organised jointly with Navrang Arts. It took place on 29 October at Leicester Museum. It focused again on the Ugandan Asian story of expulsion, arrival and settlement, this time in front of an exhibition and a public audience of around 70 people.  Dr Saima Nasar of the School of History at the University of Bristol, spoke about colonial history and the policy of Africanisation in Uganda which had led to the 1972 expulsion order. Co-organiser, Professor Bernard Ryan of the Leicester Law School, outlined the different citizenships held by Ugandan Asians at the time, and how international law obligations led the UK Government to admit holders of all forms of British passport, and their family members, but not other persons classed as stateless.  Professor Gurharpal Singh, Professor Emeritus in History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS, then showed how the 1972 arrivals shaped the context of wider South Asian settlement in Leicester.

In an afternoon session, three Leicester residents born in Uganda before 1972 spoke eloquently of their experience of the expulsion and its aftermath. Birju Ghelani, founder of St George’s Nursery, spoke of having seen army brutality first hand while travelling in Uganda with his father. Rita Hendocha MBE, principal of Brook Mead Academy, spoke movingly of the profound effects of expulsion on her own family. Finally, Jaffa Kapasi OBE, Consul General of the Republic of Uganda to the Midlands, talked of his fond memories of growing up in Uganda, and about current business opportunities for the Ugandan Asian community today.       

What next?

Time to reflect. Over a period of about five weeks, we had hosted five free public events attended by between 400-500 people in total, and involving a range of speakers including local and nationally known academics, but also local residents and workers, politicians, journalists and community leaders. It had been exhausting work, but also inspiring and rewarding in almost equal measure.  We had learned a lot about our local communities and about different areas of Leicester. We need to do more.

Our plan is to use this series of public events to guide future research at the University of Leicester concerning issues of migration, diversity and place. Among the clear themes we have identified is the complexity of migration streams once places of origin, nationality, religion, and social class are factored in. We became acutely aware, too, of the need to see settlement as a long-term process which successive generations experience differentially, with varying ambitions for social visibility and invisibility. The role of British nationality status, and more recently EU citizenship, in shaping opportunities for migration, and therefore for community formation, certainly deserves much deeper exploration. So, too, does the role of local government in facilitating and influencing patterns of in-migration and settlement.

The very first university sociology department in the world was conceived in Chicago in 1892, primarily to explore patterns of migration into the city from different parts of the globe.  A huge programme of community development and research followed, with the university at its heart. Similar, exciting potential rests here in Leicester, some 130 years later. We hope to explore new agendas in the coming years with the contacts we have made. We have been inspired by working with individuals in the city and alongside the extraordinary communities of Leicester.