It starts so imperceptibly that it is almost impossible to tell something has changed. Most parents chalk it up to mood swings or tiredness at first. Then comes the lethargy, the inaction, and the complete withdrawal from daily activities.
This is Resignation Syndrome, an illness that has plagued children of asylum seekers in Sweden for over two decades.
What is it?
Not much is known about it, but research has shown that the syndrome manifests in children during acute trauma—effectively, the child chooses to disconnect from the conscious part of his or her brain, slipping into a coma-like state. While their body continues to function and can be fed, the children do not regain consciousness, sometimes for periods as long as six months.
It is important to understand that the children do not have either a physical or mental disease: they have simply lost the will to live.
How did it start?
The first cases of Resignation Syndrome date back to the late 1990s. By 2005, more than 400 children across Sweden hospitals had fallen prey to it. In a 2017 piece, Göran Bodegård, Director of the Psychiatric Inpatient Unit at the Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, told the New Yorker: “(The patients are) totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.”
Sweden has been a haven for refugees fleeing political strife in neighbouring countries since the 70s. In recent years, the Nordic country has reported the highest number of accepted refugees per capita than any other country in the EU. Given the heated conversation around immigration and resources, however, the definition of ‘political refugees’ has been altered, and fewer families are being allowed to stay in Sweden after applying for asylum. An in-depth story by the BBC revealed that of the 35 children a social worker had seen over the years, only one family had been allowed asylum.
Who is affected the most?
Research has shown that children from particular regions of the world are more affected than others: those from the USSR, the Balkans, Roma, and Yazidi are the most susceptible. In others, however, such as African and Asian children, the condition never manifests.
Psychologists have put the onus of the illness on trauma and not asylum. Most children belong to families who have fled persecution in their own countries, or went through excessive physical and mental pressure. It seems that the only way for the children’s body to respond or adjust to the trauma is to slip into slumber, to withdraw from the world.
Even if that is the case, it is unclear why this happens only in Sweden, or why only in children from certain ethnicities. It is also difficult to say whether the condition is contagious: according to psychologists, it depends more on the situations and environments that children are subjected to.
How has Sweden responded?
In an open letter to the Swedish minister of migration, psychiatrists asserted that the time taken by the board to process the asylum applications was disproportionate—at the rate the government did its job, the children could be in limbo for years. The letter also accused the government of “systematic public child abuse.”
A lot of media coverage in 2005 was also centered around the plight of the afflicted children. Footages showing the comatose children drew criticism from the people, especially in a country that prides itself on its healthcare. Even the King spoke in support: “It’s terrible, what is happening to these poor children.”
Following prolonged outcry, almost 160,000 Swedes signed a petition to allow the children and their families to stay. Five of seven political parties in Sweden also demanded amnesty for the families. Following public support, the government passed a temporary act, which allowed 30,000 people who were set to be deported to have their applications reviewed again.
Yet, xenophobic sentiment has also planted doubts about whether the illness really does exist: opposing groups have often accused the children of faking the comatose state and the parents of drugging their children as an excuse to stay in the country. There were, however, no proofs brought forward for either.
What happens to the children?
Over the years, psychologists have adapted numerous ways to bring the children back to consciousness. In some cases, doctors recommend immersing the children in the daily routine of the household. Since the children are responsive on a mental level and can mostly comprehend what is happening around them, the families are told to keep household activities as normal as possible to show that nothing has changed.
In other cases, parents are sometimes separated from the children—the latter are kept under medical supervision. While the families are allowed to be around the children, all talk of immigration and deportation is forbidden around them. In almost all cases, the child is immersed in a sense of normalcy: they “wake up” and “sleep”, change their clothes, and are usually fed through a tube. Doctors also make efforts to engage them in daily activities, helping them draw by holding pencils and pens, for example. Furthermore, caretakers ensure that the children’s muscles do not waste away from the constant inertia: exercise, thus, is a constant.
Recoveries, however, are usually long. There can be no set number put on when the child will regain consciousness: it depends entirely on how soon they believe that they want to live and return to the world. Thus, the children can be comatose from anywhere between a month to three years, in extreme cases, with the families pinning their hopes only on time.