#BookClub: How Polish refugees came to Africa and what this tells us about the history of refugees and colonialism

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During World War Two, thousands of European refugees escaped their war-ravaged continent to find safety in Africa. One of the largest groups had come from Poland and arrived after an extraordinary odyssey in the British colonies in East and Central Africa. How did the colonial administrators and settlers handle this heavy influx of poor whites? How did Africans view these destitute Europeans? And how did the refugees position themselves in the racist, hierarchical colonial societies?

In my recent book “On the Edges of Whiteness. Polish Refugees in British Colonial Africa during and after the Second World War” I uncover this fascinating history.

I argue that the white refugees were in a complex and ambivalent social position, privileged and marginalized at the same time. From their unlikely sojourn, we can learn two things: First, the social boundaries of race in colonial societies were contested, and it took the colonizers’ considerable work and effort to reproduce them constantly. Second, while people are always fleeing violence and misery, flight directions change dramatically over time.

Today’s battlefields might be tomorrow’s safe haven.

A forgotten history

In the last decades, refugees have been making headlines. Commentators speak of “unprecedented numbers” of people fleeing war, persecution, and misery. In Europe and the US, the dominant image and concern are people fleeing from Africa, Asia, or Latin America to safety in the Global North, despite most refugees living in neighboring countries. In current debates, the history of refugees, however, is mostly ignored. During World War Two, Europe was the continent where millions were forcibly displaced by war, persecution, misery, deportations, and abductions.

While most stayed within the continent, some fled from their war-ravaged homelands to safety further south. Collective memory is short and selective. Historical events that do not fit into later discourses and assumptions are not actively remembered. Therefore, it is no wonder that the history of European refugees finding safety in Africa is largely forgotten.

One of the largest groups of European refugees in Africa were some twenty thousand Poles (others were from Greece or Yugoslavia). While their number might not be comparable to today’s millions of refugees, they were substantial compared to the white communities in the British colonies. In Uganda, there were more than twice as many Poles as other whites. In Tanganyika, there were about as many Polish refugees as Europeans of other nationalities.

Colonial authorities were thus alarmed when, in 1942, officials of the British Middle East Refugee Relief Authority asked them to share the burden of refugee hosting. The influx of such a large group of destitute white refugees – mainly women and children – posed a potential threat to the carefully constructed image of white superiority. However, let me first briefly explain how the Poles ended up in the countries that are now Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

An odyssey through three continents

The refugees had not directly run away from their home country’s brutal occupation, but they endured quite an incredible odyssey. Their forced journey started after the dual occupation of Poland through the Nazi-German and Soviet armies. In 1940, Soviet forces started deporting them at gunpoint together with some three hundred thousand Polish citizens from Eastern Poland to forced labor camps and special settlements in Siberia or Kazakhstan. There they had to fight for survival amidst unbearable conditions while an unknown number of deportees perished.

Their fate took an unexpected turn when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Suddenly in desperate need of support, Moscow agreed to accept a British-brokered agreement with the London-based Polish government-in-exile, including releasing all Poles in the Soviet Union. There had been many soldiers among the deportees, and they were supposed to form an army to fight with the hard-pressed Allies against the advancing German Wehrmacht. Eventually, this Polish army was transferred to Iran, joining the British forces there and fighting against the Axis in North Africa, Italy, and Germany.

However, when the Polish soldiers arrived in Iran, some forty thousand civilians were among them – mainly women and children. First, they moved into makeshift camps around Teheran, but the strategists deemed the civilians too close to the war theatres. British officials thus convinced the colonial governors in today’s Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and Zimbabwe to host some of the Polish civilians. From 1942 onwards, they were shipped over to Africa. Others went to India or even Mexico.

Polish refugee camps in Africa

Many of the Polish refugees were afraid to go to Africa. Like most other Europeans at that time, they held stereotypical views of the African continent and its inhabitants. They had heard racist stories about supposedly wild people, cannibalism, or deadly diseases. When they arrived in the ports of Mombasa, Dar es Salaam or Beira, however, most were relieved to encounter friendly, normal people. The British officials welcomed them as well. At the same time, many officials were concerned about the carefully constructed image of white superiority their rule rested upon.

British colonizers in Africa were concerned about keeping up the distance towards the colonized. So when these emaciated, disease-ridden refugees arrived in the colonies, the officials became anxious. They put them into refugee camps in rather remote parts of the colonies and were presided over by a British camp commandant. Poles organized and administered these camps internally, but the British commandant controlled everything that had to do with the outside.

The camps were quite different from today’s images of desolate, overcrowded, tented refugee camps. They consisted of solid houses or huts built by thousands of African workers, resembling local villages, former military barracks, or mission stations. The twenty camps were scattered far and wide over Eastern and Southern Africa. The largest camps had over three thousand inhabitants, like Tengeru in northern Tanzania, Koja on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria, or Masindi in Uganda’s Bunyoro region. Other camps consisted of only a few hundred refugees, like the Kenyan school camp of Rongai, Zambia’s Fort Jameson camp (today’s Chipata), or Marandellas (today’s Marondera) in Zimbabwe.

Hundreds of African workers were employed in these camps and did most heavy work, like digging, cleaning, carrying, cooking, or guarding the camps. I interviewed some of these former camp workers, and they had a mostly positive memory of the Poles. In the hierarchical order of the colonies, the Poles were closer and more approachable than the British, but they were nevertheless in a privileged position. They received housing, food, pocket money, education, and medical care that was well above the standard of most of their African neighbors. In some written sources, there was also concern that the refugees might stay permanently and take away the land.

Leaving Africa

By 1950, most of the refugees had eventually left their African sanctuary. Not all did so voluntarily, however. While the British officials had always expected the Poles to leave as soon as the war was over, they did not factor in the war’s outcome. After the liberation of Germany, Poland had come under the Soviet sphere of influence, and the largely anti-communist refugees in Africa were afraid to go back to a communist-ruled Poland. Moreover, Poland’s territory was shifted westwards, making the refugees’ hometowns and villages part of the Soviet Union.

Under these circumstances, only a few Poles agreed to go back to Poland. After the war, the colonial governments pressed the refugees to go elsewhere, and eventually, London allowed two-thirds of them to settle in Britain. Some other refugees were resettled to Australia or Canada. About one thousand of them got permission to stay in the colonies under “Polish quotas” negotiated between the UN’s International Refugee Organization (IRO) and the colonial governments. Most of them did, however, leave with the end of colonial rule. Except for South Africa, there is no sizeable Polish community left in Africa.

Complexities of colonial whiteness

Arriving in colonial Africa, the Polish refugees perceived themselves and were seen as white. However, this socially constructed racial category is not as straightforward as it seems. Colonial societies rested upon the hierarchical distinction between black and white, but this order had to be continually reinforced and reconstructed. When thousands of poor Eastern European refugees – most of them from the peasant class of the Polish periphery – arrived on the East African shores, the British administrators got anxious about their effect on the volatile political and social situation.

To keep them under control, colonial officials isolated the Poles in refugee camps and supplied them with up to a certain ‘European standard.’ They wanted to make sure that the difference and distance between Africans and Europeans were kept. Focusing on the ‘edges’ of the white communities is a possibility to highlight how race was constructed in colonial societies. This also connects this particular story to the larger discussion about racism, starting from the conviction that race is constructed relationally. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ or discrimination and privilege are only possible together.

Whiteness studies shift the focus to the white and privileged position, thereby exposing this unmarked and powerful position. The white refugees in colonial Africa are an interesting case in this context, showing how the boundaries between the categories were contested and constructed. This history shows that whiteness is a historically and context-specific phenomenon, functioning differently at different times and in different societies.

While white signifies the invisible norm in white-majority societies like in Europe, it is highly visible in white-minority societies, like in colonial Africa. This hyper-visibility confers importance to the behavior and class position of the most marginal whites in colonial contexts.

The history of the Polish refugees shows that not all ‘refugees’ find themselves in the same situation. While all refugees experience a loss of home, insecurity, and uncertainty, their social position in host societies also depends on other intersecting aspects, like race, class, nationality, religion, and gender. Today, anti-refugee policies and discourses are often not about refugees but rather about these very aspects.

In my book, I try to bring back the history of African hospitality and European destitution to remind Europeans (and anyone else) of the need to help people in distress regardless of their origin.

Jochen Lingelbach (@JochenLingelba1) is a postdoctoral researcher in African History at the University of Bayreuth’s Cluster of Excellence “Africa multiple. Reconfiguring African Studies” (@ClusterAfrica).

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