A demonstration in Sweden in solidarity with refugees seeking asylum in Europe after fleeing their home countries, September 2015.

Anthropology: Resignation Syndrome Among Children of Asylum Seekers in Sweden

Sweden on the map
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Sweden is a country located in Northern Europe. It borders Norway and Finland and shares maritime borders with Denmark, Germany, Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Historically, Sweden rose from economic backwardness and poverty into a highly developed post-industrial society and an advanced welfare state. 

Nowadays, Sweden has been a member of the European Union since 1995. However, the country has rejected NATO membership and Eurozone membership.

Sweden has not actively taken part in war since 1814 (over 200 years). The country broke even Switzerland’s record. Sweden never officially took side in World War II. Nevertheless, the nation has been criticized for allowing Nazis to use the Swedish railway and travelling to Germany from invaded Norway. As a consequence, this image of Sweden’s neutrality is being questioned (Rundquist, 2014).

The country is ruled by a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. The country maintains a Nordic social welfare system that provides universal health care and tertiary education for its citizens. Thanks to this, Sweden’s standard of living, life expectancy, quality of health, education, protection of civil liberties, economic competitiveness, income and gender equality, and prosperity are ranked among the highest in the world (Sandvik, 2021).

Immigration

Immigration in Sweden
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Immigration is a popular topic in modern politics and other social sciences. Historically, migration to Sweden started in the Middle Ages, with Germans being the largest immigration group. In the early 1500s, Roma people started immigration. In the late 1600s, when the country’s iron industry started to develop,  Walloons (French-speaking people from Belgium) started immigrating to Sweden (Sweden.se, 2021).

After World War II, Sweden became home for refugees seeking asylum. As a result of this, there was a wave of immigrants from Finland, Italy, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and other Balkan countries.

Due to the rapid rise in immigration in the 1970s, the Swedish Migration Board began to put more regulations in place to ensure more control. The new regulations brought a decrease in immigration in the early 1970s.

However, there was again a rise in immigration and asylum seekers in the 1980s. Immigrants came from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Eritrea, Somalia, and South American countries.

In the 1990s, Sweden saw another wave of immigration from former Yugoslavia. During this time, over 100,000 Bosnians and 3,600 Kosovo Albanians were granted asylum in Sweden.

Finally, during the 2000s, around 29,000 people from outside of the European Union and European Economic Area immigrated to Sweden for work (Sweden.se, 2021).

Swedish society is still considered ethnically and religiously very homogenous, although recent immigration has created some social diversity (Sandvik, 2021).

Immigration to Sweden 2010-2020
statista.com

Until 2016, Sweden had the most generous asylum laws among the countries in the EU. According to statistics, in 2016, there were over 163 thousand immigrants in Sweden. During that year, the Swedish asylum laws became more strict. With the decline in asylum grants – immigration to Sweden (and the rest of the European Union) has also started to gradually but significantly decline  (Statista Research Department, 2021).

The Main Reasons for Migration to Sweden:

To join family

People migrating to reunite with close family continues to be the largest immigrant group.

To find asylum

After signing the UN Refugee Convention, Sweden agreed to examine and grant asylum to refugees. The number of asylum seekers in Sweden was especially high in 2014, with most refugees coming from Syria, Eritrea, and no state or country (stateless).

For work opportunities

Workers finding job opportunities in the Swedish technology industry are one of the largest groups of immigrants. They often come from Thailand, India, and China.

To study

In addition to work, many immigrants move to Sweden to study. Most students move to Sweden from Germany, France, China, and India.

For love

Finally, many people immigrate to Sweden after falling in love with a Swede or a Swedish resident.

The Difference Between an Immigrant, Refugee, and Asylum Seeker

Migrant or immigrant (from Latin: migrare, meaning ‘wanderer’) is someone who moves from their country of origin long-term or for settlement. This does not include tourists or business travelers. Thus, immigration is the process of the international movement of people from one place to another. If they leave their country of origin they are considered emigrant from that country’s perspective.

Not every immigrant is a refugee. Some people migrate for economic reasons, such as better job opportunities, or to join their families in a different country.

Refugees migrate to other countries in an attempt to escape war, violence, conflict, or prosecution. Refugees are individuals who are seeking international protection from dangers in their home country.

Asylum seekers are individuals who are also seeking international protection from dangers in their country of origin, but whose claim for refugee status has not been determined legally. Thus, not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee.

Asylum Seekers in Sweden

In 2020, there have been 12,991 applications for asylum in Sweden, 12,270 have been rejected, and 2,913 were granted refugee status. Most of the applicants were from Syria (1,208), Uzbekistan (826), and Iraq (782) (Swedish Refugee Law Center, 2021).

Swedish Immigration Law

On April, 8th 2021, after five years of temporary measures taken after the migration crisis in 2015, the Swedish government pushed ahead of the new migration bill to parliament. The temporary measure was based on a “temporary residence permit” given to those who have been granted asylum.

The bill has been submitted by Sweden’s center-left government. Under the new proposed bill, anyone seeking permanent residency in Sweden will only be granted one if they meet certain requirements. The individuals will have to be able to support themselves and have sufficient language proficiency and civic skills. The latter requirement is new and comes as Sweden is also planning to tighten citizenship requirements.

Psychological Effects of Immigration

People being born in a country different from where they move to often have different religions, traditions and speak a different language. Immigrating into a foreign country can affect the individual’s psychological health. This is because adapting to new traditions and integrating with a different society, means letting go of old ways of living and launching a completely new beginning, which can be stressful and challenging (Robert and Gilkinson, 2013).

Especially, refugees and asylum seekers are prone to mental health problems related to trauma and immigration. Many of them had witnessed violence, rape, killings, and/or threats against themselves and/or a close family member. Further stress experienced during the process of immigration, such as fear of deportation, lack of assimilation, and language barriers, means that those individuals are exposed to various mental health problems, such as depression and even psychosis. The distress related to the process of migration occurs while the individual’s self-esteem is re-evaluated and modified.

It does not matter whether the migration is international or internal, any migrant with a lack of preparation and social support, as well as complexities, barriers, and differences can be affected psychologically.

The Main Types of Challenges Faced by Immigrants

  • Discrimination

One of the main factors leading to stress in immigrants is discrimination. Continuous prejudice and discrimination against immigrants can lead to low self-esteem and eventually develop into anxiety and depression. According to the psychiatrist, Robin Murray – similarly to trauma and stress caused by war, discrimination, and racism, can lead to psychosis (Capelowicz, 2016).

  • Integration and Assimilation

Another factor that can cause stress in immigrants is the difficulty to integrate with a different society and acquiring the social and psychological characteristics of that society. The struggle to adjust to new social roles and relationships can cause high levels of discomfort, due to cultural differences (Urzua et al, 2016). This can be especially prominent if immigrants feel unwelcome in society when right-wing politicians are hostile towards immigrants and spread negative views.

  • Language Barriers

The most obvious challenge faced by most immigrants is the lack of understanding of the language of a particular society, as well as the way of life, bureaucratic and political systems, and so on. Such challenges can affect an individual’s confidence and also lead to depression.

  • Separation from Family

Immigrants who move to another country to settle experience additional distress related to separation from their loved ones and missing life back home. Separation can be experienced even more intensely if it is accompanied by other factors related to acculturative stress. However, immigrants from countries with an ongoing conflict, such as Iran, may indicate lower levels of stress related to missing life back home due to trauma they faced in their own country (Ellison, 2020).

Resignation Syndrome

Resignation syndrome.
newyorker.com

Resignation Syndrome is a disorder affecting mainly traumatized children and adolescents in the midst of a strenuous and lengthy migration process. It was first reported in Sweden in the 1990s. The illness starts with a depressive onset, followed by gradual withdrawal progressing via stupor (when they stop walking, eating, and talking) into a coma-like state (Sallin et al, 2016). In the medical journal Acta PædiatricaBodegård described the typical patient with Resignation Syndrome as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.” (R. Aviv, 2017)

Explanations of the Resignation Syndrome

Sweden has been battling this mysterious illness for nearly two decades. It is known that this syndrome is a response to the trauma of refugees. Many refugees and asylum seekers have escaped dangerous circumstances in their home country, and while waiting to be granted legal permission to stay in their new country, they have been undergoing many refusals and appeals over a long period of time. However, this explanation does not explain why the illness occurs only in Sweden and not in other countries.

Another explanation is that the mother attempts to manage her depression, trauma, and needs by projecting her problems onto the child.

Children of asylum seekers, such as 9-year-old Sophie from the former USSR, witness extreme violence against themselves or their parents before they emigrate to a new country in search of asylum. Sophie witnessed her parents being dragged out of the car by the mafia in police uniform and brutally beaten. Since then, the girl has been withdrawn. After escaping with her parents to Sweden, they were soon told that they could not stay. Since then, Sophie stopped speaking and eating.

Although it is not known why this illness occurs only in Sweden. The reason why the asylum seekers’ children fall into this mystery coma is only in Sweden. One of the reasons could be related to changes in attitudes towards immigrants in Sweden. A few years ago, Sweden welcomed asylum seekers with open arms. This attitude has gradually started to change after 2015 when immigration became a huge political issue (Berkmann, 2021).

Due to changes in immigration law, and more restrictive asylum-seeking policies, immigrants could start experiencing these radical changes through extreme stress and anxiety. Although patients withdraw completely, cease to walk, talk, or open their eyes, physically, they are considered healthy.  Their pulse and reflexes are normal, their hair is shiny – like a healthy child’s. The condition could last for months or even years. The children eventually recover after their life circumstances improve and they feel safe again (Pressly, 2017).

A boy who has recovered from the syndrome explained his experience of being ‘asleep’ “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.” (O’Sullivan, 2021).

Conclusion

Resignation Syndrome (‘Uppgivenhetssyndrom’ in Swedish) among asylum seeker children is currently a bizarre social and psychological issue that requires attention. There is still a lack of research into this topic, therefore the condition is considered mysterious and has not been fully explained. Some researchers believe that the focus of research should not be on the patient, but on the refugee camps and communities (such as caretakers/parents). Switching the focus of research onto the systems in which children receive care will provide insight for Social Scientists and medical practitioners into the true implications of this condition (Yates, 2019).

References: 

Aviv, R. (2017) “The Trauma of Facing Deportation”. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/03/the-trauma-of-facing-deportation  

Berkmann, M. (2021) “Eye-Opening Tale of the Real Sleeping Beauties”. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-9526829/Author-explores-science-children-fall-mystery-coma.html  

Capelowicz, J. (2016) “Refugees Suffer a Higher Rate of Psychotic Disorders”. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/refugees-suffer-a-higher-rate-of-psychotic-disorders/  

Ellison, K. (2020) “Treating the Growing Trauma of Family Separation”.  Retrieved from https://knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2020/treating-growing-trauma-family-separation 

O’Sullivan, S. (2021) “The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness”. LondonPicador. 

Rundquist, Solveig (2014) Sweden celebrates 200 years of peace”. Retrieved from https://www.thelocal.se/20140815/sweden-celebrates-200-years-of-peace/ 

Sandvik, G. (2021) “Sweden”. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Sweden 

Sallin K, Lagercrantz H, Evers K, Engström I, Hjern A, Petrovic P. (2016) “Resignation Syndrome: Catatonia? Culture-Bound?” Front Behav Neurosci. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26858615/ 

Sweden.se (2021) “Sweden and Migration”. Retrieved from https://sweden.se/society/sweden-and-migration/# 

Swedish Refugee Law Center (2021). Retrieved from https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/sweden/statistics/ 

Urzua et al (2016) “The influence of acculturation strategies in quality of life by immigrants in Northern Chile”. Journal Article. Retrieved from http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/27552005 

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