From war-torn Europe to colonial Africa

While World War II was ravaging Europe, thousands of Polish people found a safe haven in British colonial Africa. This forgotten history shows us that migration patterns are constantly changing.

A group of Polish and African fieldworkers, probably in Tengeru, Tanganyika. From the collection of Katarzyna Oko, courtesy of Fatimah and Amena Amer.

Less than eighty years ago, the Middle East and, particularly, Africa provided a safe haven for refugees from the misery in Europe. Thousands of Greeks and Yugoslavs fled from the fighting, famine and oppression to Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanganyika (part of modern-day Tanzania), or the Congo. Some of them took the very same routes as today’s Middle Eastern and African refugees—just in the opposite direction. One of the largest refugee groups in Africa was some twenty thousand Polish people, who stayed from 1942 to 1950 in 20 refugee camps spread over Britain’s African colonies. Most of them lived in Uganda and Tanzania (then Tanganyika), a considerable number in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) and Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and some in Kenya and South Africa. However, their odyssey to Africa and their social position once there, were complicated.

For most Polish people, this odyssey started in 1940 on Poland’s eastern periphery with an angry knock on the door in the wee hours. Soviet occupation forces moved them at gunpoint to labor camps and special settlements in the Soviet interior. Once there, they had to fight for survival until the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Soviets reached a British-brokered agreement. Included in this accord was the release of all Poles in order to form an army to fight with the Allies against the Nazis. This army was eventually set up under British command in Iran. Over 100,000 Polish soldiers fought against the Axis in the Middle East, North Africa, and Italy. However, among the released Poles were not only soldiers, but also people who were not fit for military service. By July 1942, the number of civilians in Iran had risen to close to 40,000.

As the military situation in the Middle East worsened, the region became increasingly unsafe for refugees. Additionally, British strategists regarded the refugees as a problem to military logistics, hence the need to relocate them. Due to the strategic interest in having the Polish soldiers, the British government convinced the colonial administration in British East and Central Africa to host some 20,000 refugees for the duration of the war. While the Polish soldiers fought with the Allies, the civilians (mainly women, children, and the elderly) went to refugee camps in Africa.

The first African country to host Polish refugees was Zambia (then a colony known as Northern Rhodesia). The first party of 350 refugees composed of 131 men, 145 women, and 74 children left Cyprus for Palestine by ship en route to Zambia on July 21, 1941. The majority of them were urban middle-class and were accommodated in hotels and boarding houses in Lusaka, Monze, Mazabuka and Livingstone. The second, and much larger, group were Poles who had been deported to the Soviet Union and arrived from Iran in small batches beginning in mid-1942. By the end of 1943 there were nearly 3,500 Poles in Zambia. Much of the latter party was composed of peasants. They were accommodated in four camps, which had been set up in the towns of Abercorn, Lusaka, Fort Jameson, and Bwana Mkubwa.

Uganda and Tanzania hosted over six thousand refugees each, with the largest camps located in Tengeru (near Arusha), Koja (on a peninsula in Lake Victoria), and Masindi (in western Uganda). To get an idea of the dimensions, we must remember that during the war there were twice as many Poles in Uganda as other Europeans. In Tanzania every second European was a Polish refugee (for visual impressions see here). Kenya mainly served as a transit hub and Nairobi was the African center of the Polish and British refugee administration.

In the Zambian camps, the Poles lived in Kimberley burned brick buildings. The roofs were thatched with elephant grass—in essence showing the low status nature of their living conditions. In many respects, their way of life was not a departure from that of the majority local African population. Their dwellings were also an illustration that these people were meant to be temporal inhabitants, to be repatriated after the war. The camps were characterized by poor sanitation, in some cases leading to disease, prostitution, a shortage of consumer goods, and criminal activity. However, when compared to the living conditions of refugees in Europe at that time and life on the eastern periphery of Poland, the camps were an improvement. While life in the camps was a far cry from the living standards of European settlers, it was easily endurable. As a contemporary historian put it: “[They] continued to live in favorable conditions in a European though colonial environment, 5,000 miles from European problems and unconcerned about their future.”

Reasons for their relative comfort can be found in the colonial division of society. The colonial administration was concerned about a possible loss of “white prestige” and the blurring of the dividing line between colonizer and colonized. Poor, peasant-class, Eastern European whites had much in common with other “poor whites.” Consequently, they had to be controlled, isolated (in camps) and lifted to a certain standard. The narrative of Europe in the colonies at the time was of a continent that enjoyed a higher standard of living than was the reality. Subsequently, thousands of Africans were employed to build the camps for the refugees (some were even conscripted), hundreds more worked maintenance at the camps—fetching water, cutting wood, carrying food, guarding, cooking, and emptying latrines. Refugees received sufficient rations, pocket money, healthcare, and accommodation from the colonial administration. The Polish administration established a complete Polish school system in the camps. Additionally, the refugees received donations from the Red Cross, the YMCA, as well as Catholic and Polish diaspora organizations.

When the war ended in 1945, the majority of the refugees did not want to return home to the new Communist regime that had taken power, and the eastern part of Poland had been absorbed into the Soviet Union. Only a few opted for voluntary repatriation. The demobilized Polish soldiers were allowed to settle in Britain and in 1948, about two thirds of the Poles were allowed to join them there. Some were resettled to Australia or managed to obtain visas to travel elsewhere. Only about one thousand Poles were given permission to settle in Africa. Colonial governments and European settlers were reluctant to allow this problematic group to stay permanently. In Zambia, the local English population feared that the job market would be devalued if more Poles were permitted to remain. This is similar to today’s situation whereby thousands of people from poor and war-torn countries risk their lives to seek asylum in the global North, albeit with not much success for all of them. Zimbabwe’s white settlers regarded them as inferior and a threat to British dominance. Throughout the colonies, African activists were challenging British dominance. In this volatile climate, poor white refugees were seen as a complicating factor and colonial governments made it clear that they were not welcome.

The history of Polish (and other European) refugees in Africa shows us that flight directions are changing. Today’s safe havens are yesterday’s battlefields. It is also a reminder that “the refugee” was never a universal category. In different places, and at different times, refugees were and are treated differently. Compared to today’s African refugees in Europe, the European war refugees in colonial Africa found themselves in a privileged position.

Further Reading