Lest we forget: European refugees in India, Africa and the Middle East

As Europe struggles to deal with a huge refugee influx it might be useful to remind ourselves of a similar route taken by European refugees about half a century back.

During World War II in Europe over 40 million refugees sought shelter away from the catastrophic bloodshed that engulfed the continent for over six years. While a lot has been written about the settlement of post WWII refugees in camps of the West Europe and America, very little is known about the journey of those seeking asylum in the Middle East, Africa and India. Majority of these refugees were citizens of East Poland who had been displaced as a result of the Soviet invasion of Poland in September, 1939 which led to the death of about 500,000 Polish citizens and deportation of a number close to 1 million.

As Europe struggles to deal with a huge refugee influx, especially from the Middle East, it might be useful to remind ourselves of a similar route taken by European refugees about half a century back.

We need to remember though that these refugee camps were established in areas that were under British colonial rule. Hence it is difficult to say to what extent the hosts were involved in making decisions to let refugees in since the decision ultimately lay in the hands of the colonial masters. Making a comparison of the current refugee crisis with that of the one after World War II, Piotr Puchalski, a researcher on Polish-African relations, says that “It is possible that if Europeans today retained more formal control over the flow of refugees in the Middle East and Africa region itself, for example through an international organization, then it might be easier to channel refugees to various places closer to their homes. This is not to say that I am a proponent of colonialism, but that system, otherwise exploitative, was at least more conducive to deal with the refugee crisis during World War II.”

Watch video: The Soviet Story – Soviet Invasion of Poland, September 17, 1939, an excerpt.


In January 1942, the Maharaja of Nawanagar in India accepted 500 Polish children into his territories. By March 1943, the Valivade camp in Maharashtra was established and it became a thriving Polish town with 5,000 refugees.

Lorry convoy with Polish children arriving in India. (Source: Kresy-Siberia Foundation website)

Records reserved in the Kresy Siberia Foundation give evidence of the anticipation and fear in the hearts and minds of the thousands who were about to cross the borders into India. In the words of a little boy:

“A rumour began to circulate that we would be leaving the following day. Where? Into the unknown, the distant South, the equator. On the one hand there was a pleasant anticipation of this exotic journey; on the other hand there was a concern for our nearest and dearest. Where are they? What is happening to them? Will I ever see them again? Perhaps they are no longer alive.”

Polish Children in Bandra; Poles in India 1942-48. (Source: Kresy-Siberia Foundation website)


About 35,000 Polish refugees settled down in Eastern and Southern Africa. Majority of these refugees were from Eastern Poland. They travelled in British ships, making an arduous journey of several weeks that involved the loss of lives and property. They were put up in areas that came under the British Empire in places like Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika.

Polish children in Masindi, Africa. 1942. (Source: Kresy-Siberia Foundation website)

Around 22 camps had to be built in Africa to house the refugees from Poland. In all of these campsites, Polish schools, churches and community centres were established.

Polish families in Masindi, Africa. 1946. (Source: Kresy-Siberia Foundation website)

Middle East

During the war when number of refugees leaving Europe had reached a peak, the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA) established and managed camps in Syria, Egypt and Palestine where Europeans numbering in thousands settled at any given time. Majority of those residing in these camps were from Croatia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey.

Refugee camp in Tehran, 1943. (Source: Kresy-Siberia Foundation website)

“We embarked for Iran from Krasnovodsk. My brother was suffering from typhus and the Polish doctor told him that the crossing would be very rough and that he would not make it. And my brother said ‘I know I might die, but at least I will die in a free country, not this land here’.

The above words by Henry Frank Kustra is evidence of the desperation with which Europeans were seeking out an exit from their desecrated continent at the end of the Second World War.

A Ship carrying Polish soldiers and civilian refugees arrives in Iran from the Soviet Union, 1942. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Refugees from the Middle East who are fleeing the horrors meted out by the Islamic State has posed itself as one of the biggest problems for Europe today. In May this year, Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced that the country would not be accepting a single refugee on account of security fears. Earlier in February, Croatia and Slovenia had imposed significant limits on the number of refugees entering their borders.

Syrian refugees and migrants pass through Slovenia, 23 October 2015. (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Earlier in February, Croatia and Slovenia had imposed significant limits on the number of refugees entering their borders.

The juxtaposition of Europe’s refusal to let more refugees enter and the desperation with which refugees from the same continent sought for shelter in the East just half a century back is quite interesting.


Disclaimer: Excerpts of all refugee interviews have been taken from the Kresy-Siberia Foundation website- www.kresy-siberia.org
First Published on: July 26, 2016 10:12 am
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