In Swedish, the word is
uppgivenhetssyndrom, or “resignation syndrome.”
It could be the most disturbing illness child refugees face.
In a recent New Yorker profile of Georgi, a Russian refugee living in Sweden, author Rachel Aviv reviews the decade-plus of research surrounding resignation syndrome, and the effects it has on refugees’ families.
According to Swedish medical literature — currently the only country to name such a disorder — children who are diagnosed exhibit a mysterious bundle of symptoms. They show severe malaise, lack of appetite, and despondency. Elisabeth Hultcrantz, doctor and professor emeritus at Linkoping University, has called it a “coma,” despite children retaining their consciousness.
Resignation syndrome creeps up on refugee children, experts surmise, because of two related factors. The first is the lingering psychological damage from the turmoil they faced in their home country. The second is the sense of doom that’s felt if they are forced to go back.
Sweden has seen a surge of refugees within the last several years — more than any other European country per capita.
“The equivalent in the US would be to take in six to seven million refugees,” Magnus Ranstorp, an expert in counter-terrorism at the Swedish National Defence University, told CNN.
People fleeing conflict in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Russia are arriving in the tiny Nordic country in search of tolerance and peace. Instead, many people have found legal difficulties in securing permanent residence. As good as the social services may be for refugees, stability can still be missing.
As a result, when families don’t qualify to stay long-term, their kids have to abandon the security they have found in their new homes.
Aviv writes that Georgi stopped speaking Russian, reverting only to Swedish. Soon he stopped eating and talking altogether. “The boy is alive but barely,” one doctor wrote.
Resignation syndrome is particularly mysterious because it almost seems to crop up unconsciously, perhaps as a way to avoid deportation, some have speculated. Sweden’s Migration Board allows families with children suffering from the condition to receive residency permits.
In an interview with NPR, Aviv cites a report from 2006 that proposed most of the kids come from “holistic cultures,” in which the self blurs with the family. A wealth of other research has looked at the links in the 10 years since.
“The children were sacrificing themselves for their families,” Aviv said of those in the report. “They take on a martyr role.”
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