The Strange Case of Immigrant Children in Sweden, Who Become Comatose When Faced with Deportation
A refugee looks from a window in the Sweden’s largest temporary camp for refugges at the former psychiatric hospital Restad Gard on February 12, 2016 in Vanersborg, Sweden. Image via Getty.
In the New Yorker, Rachel Aviv has written about “resignation syndrome,” an affliction specific to immigrant children in Sweden who essentially and physically lost the will to live upon being told they will be deported. It’s a profoundly heartbreaking story that illustrates the true human cost of denying asylum to those who need it—that the prospect of leaving their peaceful adopted country and going back to their countries of origin (in this case, mostly “former Soviet and Yugoslav states”) renders them without the will to live.
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the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica, Bodegård described the typical patient as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.”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 a hundred-and-thirty-page report on the condition, commissioned by the government and published in 2006, a team of psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists hypothesized that it was a culture-bound syndrome, a psychological illness endemic to a specific society.
To illustrate this illness, she focuses on 13-year-old Georgi, a child who immigrated with his parents to Sweden from Russia at the age of five. He was fully Swedish for all intents and purposes, having been immersed fully enough into the culture that he even knew the minutiae of Volvos, but upon the knowledge that he and his family would have to return to Russia, he essentially slipped into a coma state. His teacher, Aviv writes, explained to students the absence of the popular and well-loved classmate as thus:
He told them, “Georgi has waited such a long time to get an answer about whether he can stay here in Sweden, and he has more or less given up. He finds no meaning in school or to even exist.”
The diagnosis is frequent enough that citizens have pressured the government to grant asylum to the “apathetic children” and their families, which also seems to be the only cure—a doctor Aviv interviewed said that given asylum, the sufferers will recover within six months to a year. And from a diagnostic perspective, the illness reflects not just a cultural fear but a growing national crisis. “The apathetic children embody the country’s worst fantasy of what will become of the most vulnerable if Sweden abandons its values,” writes Aviv. “The children are embedded in a moral and political debate that is central to the country’s identity, complete with heroes (doctors), victims (patients), and villains (those who doubt the victims’ suffering).”
Georgi’s family was eventually given permanent resident status in May of 2016, and by the autumn he had recovered; he described his illness to Aviv as thus:
During his months in bed, he said, he had felt as if he were in a glass box with fragile walls, deep in the ocean. If he spoke or moved, he thought, it would create a vibration, which would cause the glass to shatter. “The water would pour in and kill me,” he said.
The whole story is truly astonishing, and the way it encapsulates the terror and suffering of immigrants whose status is precarious (documented or not) is more than visceral. Read it in full here.