In the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv has a heartrending story about hundreds refugee children in Sweden who, upon hearing that they would be deported to their country of origin, have fallen into a coma. Called “uppgivenhetssyndrom” in Swedish, or “resignation syndrome,” the condition strikes children who have already spent many years in Sweden waiting for their asylum applications to be reviewed, learning to speak Swedish, going to Swedish friends, making Swedish schools. When they learn that they are being sent back to a country they barely know, they slowing fall into a catatonic state, remaining in been for weeks at at time. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
By 2005, more than four hundred children, most between the ages of eight and fifteen, had fallen into the condition. In the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica, Bodegård described the typical patient as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.” Nearly all the children had emigrated from former Soviet and Yugoslav states, and a disproportionate number were Roma or Uyghur. Sweden has been a haven for refugees since the seventies, accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation, but the country’s definition of political refugees had recently narrowed. Families fleeing countries that were not at war were often denied asylum.
In an open letter to the Swedish minister of migration, forty-two psychiatrists asserted that the new restrictions on asylum seekers and the time it took the Migration Board to process their applications—children could be in limbo for years—were causing the disease. They accused the government of “systematic public child abuse.” Opinion within the medical community converged on the theory that the illness was a reaction to two traumas: harassment in the children’s home country, and the dread, after acclimating to Swedish society, of returning. Sweden’s leading medical journal, Läkartidningen, devoted dozens of articles, and several poems, to the syndrome. “Your eyes had seen it all / aged with an old man’s weariness without any hope of life in the future,” Mildred Oudin, the chief of child psychiatry in Skövde, in central Sweden, wrote. Magnus Kihlbom, the director of an institute for child psychiatry in Stockholm, proposed in the journal that the disorder represented a kind of willed dying. Kihlbom cited the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote that some prisoners in the concentration camps were “so totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, that they had given the environment total power over them.” They “stopped eating, sat mute and motionless in corners, and expired.”
Swedish news programs broadcast footage of children on stretchers being loaded into airplanes and expelled from the country. Sweden prides itself on its commitment to helping the most vulnerable, and the illness was seen as an affront to the country’s national character. Even the King was alarmed. “It’s terrible, what is happening to these poor children,” he told the press in 2005. (A psychologist tracked down an apathetic boy who had been deported to Serbia and found him, six months later, still unconscious, his skin sallow, in a one-room house with no running water.)
Image: Refugees in Sweden suffer from “Uppgivenhetssyndrom,” or resignation syndrome.