“They are like Snow White”
It’s well-documented that Europe is in the midst of a refugee crisis. Thousands of people are flooding over borders from war-torn countries hoping to settle and make a new life for themselves and their families. While the political strife is well-documented, what is less reported is the intense health crisis facing many refugee children.
Thousands of refugee children are apparently suffering from "resignation syndrome," an illness that remains a mystery in the medical community.
“Resignation syndrome (RS) designates a long-standing disorder predominately affecting psychologically traumatized children and adolescents in the midst of a strenuous and lengthy migration process,” Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience explained in a 2016 article. The onset of the illness usually coincides with depression, followed by gradual withdrawal from their surroundings and progresses into a “stupor,” according to the article. RS is characterized by failure to respond even to painful stimuli. The illness can become so intense that the child appears unconscious. Without medical assistance the child will die.
While the illness itself is, without question, complicated and misunderstood, what makes it all the more rare is that it appears to be exclusively affecting refugee children in Sweden.
According to a feature in The New Yorker exploring the unusual condition, the epidemic in Sweden began sometime in the early 2000’s. By 2005, more than 400 children between the ages of 8 and 15 had fallen into the condition (out of a total of 6,547 asylum applications for children). Adding further questions to the mystery, is the fact that nearly all of the children affected by the condition come from Kosovo, Serbia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. And the illness, researchers believe, could be more connected to these cultures than previously thought. As The New Yorker reported:
The Swedish government’s report proposed that the apathetic children were from ‘holistic cultures,’ where it is ‘difficult to draw boundaries between the individual’s private sphere and the collective domain.’ They were sacrificing themselves for their family by losing consciousness. ‘Even if no direct encouragement or directive is given,’ the report said, “many children raised with holistic thinking may nonetheless act according to the group’s ‘unspoken’ rules.”
The reason so many children are falling victim to resignation syndrome is still unclear, but the best guess that researchers and medical professionals can make is that children simply cannot go on after living through such excruciating circumstances, like being forced from your home and threatened within an inch of your life. Once relocated to a safe country like Sweden, the child cannot imagine returning to such dire circumstances and, thus, falls into a catatonic state. As Mildred Oudin, the chief of child psychiatry in Skövde, in central Sweden, wrote in the medical journal, Läkartidningen, “Your eyes had seen it all / aged with an old man’s weariness without any hope of life in the future.”
Eventually, and thankfully, the children affected by resignation syndrome regain their ability to move, speak, and eat on their own. However, full recovery hinges on one thing: providing the family of the affected child with permanent residency in Sweden, thus taking away any threat to their future life. As the New Yorker noted, a 76-page guide for treating resignation syndrome stated in 2013, “A permanent residency permit is considered by far the most effective ‘treatment.’ The turning point will usually be a few months to half a year after the family receives permanent residence.”
Read the entire The New Yorker feature here.