Even after two decades, Sweden is still battling with a mysterious illness known as Resignation Syndrome. It basically affects the children of asylum-seekers, ceasing them to walk and talk, and even open their eyes. And after some time, they eventually start to recover.
Nine-year-old Sophie is currently living like a lifeless human being. When her father picks her up from her wheelchair, she shows no signs of life except breathing. While her hair is still thick and shiny just like any other healthy children, under her tracksuit bottoms, she wears a nappy and a transparent feeding tube that runs into her nose and has been nourishing her for the past 20 months. However, Sophie’s eyes are always closed…
Like all other asylum seekers, Sophie and her family also came from the former USSR in December 2015 and dwells in an accommodation that’s allocated to refugees in a small town in central Sweden.
So what made the child so inert who once loved to dance like a free bird?
“When I explain to the parents what has happened, I tell them the world has been so terrible that Sophie has gone into herself and disconnected the conscious part of her brain,” said Hultcrantz.
The doctors who treat these children also nod to the fact that trauma is the main cause that has made them withdraw from this world. The most vulnerable children are those who have witnessed extreme violence mostly against their parents or whose families have fled from a highly insecure environment.
To our knowledge, no cases have been established outside of Sweden Karl Sallin, Paediatrician
So what is Resignation Syndrome and how deep are its roots in Sweden?
Resignation Syndrome was first reported in Sweden in late 90s. Only in two years, between 2003 and 2005, there were more than 400 cases reported.
Like every compelling story, more and more Swedes started worrying about the consequences of immigration. These lesser known “apathetic children”, soon became a huge political issue. People and leaders were accusing that these children were faking it and that their parents were poisoning them to secure residence. However, none of those stories was proven according to the reports.
During the last ten years, a decrease in the number of children reported to be suffering from Resignation Syndrome has been seen. Sweden’s National Board of Health recently reported there were 169 cases in 2015 and 2016 only.
This case is quite visible in the children from particular geographical and ethnic groups such as those particularly from the former USSR, Roma children, the Balkans, and the Yazidi. Only a few cases have been unaccompanied migrants, while none have been African, and a very few from Asian ethnicity. Like Sophie, other children who are affected have also been living in Sweden for many years, and speak the language and are well tuned to their new, Nordic lives.
In the past, such cases resembling Resignation Syndrome have been reported particularly among Nazi concentration camp inmates.While in the UK, a similar condition – known as Pervasive Refusal Syndrome – was identified in the 1990s among children, however, none of them was among asylum seekers and only a tiny handful of cases were identified.
Is this illness confined to some particular national boundaries?
“There is no definite answer to that question”, says Sallin, who is researching Resignation Syndrome for his PhD.
I can’t make her better because as doctors we don’t decide if these children can stay in Sweden or not Lars Dagson, Sophie’s paediatrician
“The most plausible explanation is that there is some sort of socio-cultural factors that are necessary in order for this condition to develop. A certain way of reacting or responding to traumatic events seems to be legitimised in a certain context.”
“That is sort of implicit in the model. That if you provide the right sort of nourishment for those kinds of behaviours in a society, you will also see more cases,” says Sallin.
“If you look at the very first case in 1998 in the north of Sweden, as soon as that case was reported, there were other cases emerging in the same area. And there have also been cases of siblings where the first one develops it and then the other. But it should be noted that researchers who proposed that model of disease, they are not certain that there needs to be direct contact between cases. It’s a topic for research.”
Is there any way to understand Resignation Syndrome?
Sallin highlights the main obstacle to understanding Resignation Syndrome – “the lack of research into it”. So far no one has done any follow-up on what happens to these traumatised children, however, we know that they somehow survive.
But for Sophie’s parents, it’s hard to believe there’s still hope. For the past 20 months, they have seen no significant changes in her.
The town of Skara tells a very different story….
Evidence from the town of Skara in the south of Sweden tells that there is still a way of curing children with Resignation Syndrome despite the fact their families have not a permanent residence.
“From our point of view, this particular sickness has to do with former trauma, not asylum,” told Annica Carlshamre, a senior social worker for Gryning Health, a company that runs Solsidan, a home for all kinds of troubled children.
The carers at Solsidan believe that when children see violence or threats against their parents, their most significant connection in the world gets broken.
“We have an expectation that they want to live, and all their abilities are still there,” Clara Ogren, Solsidan.
It’s important to rebuild that family connection, but for that, the child needs to start recovering. So Solsidan believes the first step should be to separate the families from their children.All conversations related to the migration process are prohibited in front of the child.
The children perform their daily chores. Experienced staff like Clara Ogren, help them to once again colour their life by making them colour or draw by holding their hands to grip a pencil.
“We play for them until they can play on their own. And we goof around a lot and dance and listen to music. We want to bring all their senses to life. So we might take a little bit of Coca-Cola, and put it in their mouth so they taste something sweet. Even if they are tube-fed, we put them in the kitchen so they smell food,” she explained.
Its observed that the longest time a child took to recover was six months. Since children have no contact with their families this factor motivates them to get back to their families even through a phone call.