The Story of Uganda's Polish Refugees

Uganda is often lauded for its open policy towards refugees, and this was the case for the Polish refugees who called Uganda home during World War II.

When Germany invaded Poland on 1st September 1939, it triggered the beginning of the Second World War. A few weeks later, on 17th September 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland from the East. The NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) of the Soviet Union proceeded to deport a two million Polish civilians to labour camps through the USSR.

In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, resulting in the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, which included provisions to release Polish prisoners of war, and grant ‘amnesty’ to the exiled Polish citizens held captive throughout the USSR. Unable to return to war torn Poland, over 100,000 Polish refugees needed to be relocated. Many went to Iran, but they were unable to handle the large numbers, so instead around 33,000 were transferred to British territories around the world. 18,000 were sent to Africa between 1942 and 1943, ending up in Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika (Tanzanian), South Africa and Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe).

There were two camps in Uganda: one at Koja, in Mukono district, and the second at Nyabyeya, near Masindi. The Nyabyeya camp consisted of six villages, where 3,635 refugees lived. Between 1943 and 1945 they built a church on the land. Our Lady Queen of Poland Catholic Church stands to this day.

The British withdrew their recognition of the exiled Polish government in July 1945, two months before the end of the war. Only 3,800 Polish refugees in Africa decided to return to Poland at the end of the war.

In 1946, the financial responsibility for the Polish refugee camps in Africa were taken over by United Nations Administration for Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and a year later, by the International Refugees Organization (IRO). The Nyabyeya camp was closed in 1948, with the refugees relocated to Britain, Canada, Australia and other places. Only two camps remained in East Africa: Koja, in Uganda, and Tengeru, in Tanganyika (Tanzania). These were both shut in 1952, and Africa’s remaining Polish refugees were resettled in other countries. A handful chose to remain in Tanganyika, the last of whom died in 2015.