Why Are Syrian Teenagers In Sweden Falling Victim To A Mysterious 'Sleeping Sickness' Upon Facing Deportation?

Sweden has accepted more Syrian refugees than any other European country, but, despite its attempts, the country has struggled to accommodate all of the displaced men, women, and children. In the midst of this crisis, a mysterious disease has developed among Syrian teenage refugees in Sweden, one that inexplicably results in catalepsy-like states.

Called "resignation syndrome" – or uppgivenhetssyndrom, in Swedish – young Syrians appear to be sleeping while, in actuality, they are forfeiting consciousness in the face of heightened distress. Essentially, these young refugees are gradually losing the motivation to live. The catatonia-inducing disease tends to manifest after a teen's request for asylum has been denied, causing skeptics to wonder whether resignation syndrome is a true medical condition, or just a type of placebo.

  • Teens With Resignation Sickness Can't Feed Themselves And Don't Respond To Pain


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    Teenagers who have been afflicted by uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation sickness, do not suddenly shut down but instead slowly withdraw from their surroundings. They often stop speaking and eating and reach the point where they no longer open their eyes, forcing their family and friends to take extreme measures to keep them alive.

    Many victims, like Georgi, a once-vibrant teen whose family was denied residency in 2014, are given feeding tubes. The teens, suffering from extremem depression and apathy, don't even resist the insertion of the tube, nor do they react when doctors try to elicit a pain reaction. When a light is shone in their eyes, they do not seem to notice. When touched or comforted, they show no response.

  • They May Be Traumatized From Their Experiences, The Thought Of Going Back, Or Both

    The root cause of uppgivenhetssyndrom is unknown but doctors believe a combination of factors may be involved. The children, most of whom are between the ages of seven and 19, are all from "holistic cultures" that value the family unit over the individual. As a result, one theory contests that these teens are unconsciously sacrificing themselves for their families, falling into a vegetative state so the entire family can avoid deportation. 

    There may be other causes – or at least contributing factors – for the illness. The children come from violent, war-torn areas, and once deportation becomes a reality, they fall victim to extreme fear at the thought of returning to those conditions, losing the safety they and their familmies have worked so hard to gain.

  • Some Teens Begin To Resign Almost Immediately After Asylum Is Denied


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    The early stages of resignation syndrome include social withdrawal, dysphoria, and a lack of anxiety, but once a teen fully accepts that there is no hope for asylum, their immersion into a stupor can be almost immediate. One Roma girl lost the ability to walk within one day of finding out her family was denied residency in Sweden. She and her sister were both stricken by the disease, and although she had only been bedridden for a few months, her sister had been immobile and noncommunicative for two years when NPR reported on them in 2017. 

  • One Recovered Patient Said He Felt Like He Was In A Glass Box For Months

    When these teenagers fall into a stupor, many wonder what exactly they experience. Georgi, who slowly emerged from the disease in 2016 after his family was granted asylum, described his state "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."

  • Sweden Doesn't Allow Those Suffering From Resignation Syndrome To Be Deported

    Sweden's policy prohibits the deportation of any child suffering or their family if resignation syndrome is present. This was not always the case, however; when the illness was at its height, teens were denied medical care or were sent back to their native countries in vegetative states.

    When more than four hundred children suffered from the ailment in 2005, over forty psychiatrists wrote an open letter to the Swedish government calling on them to reconsider their practices in regards to the "open child abuse" of asylum considerations. One hundred and sixty thousand Swedes also signed a petition that asked the government to stop deporting "apathetic children," and most of the major political parties demanded amnesty for the youths. 


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  • The Only Known Cure Is A Sense Of Security And Safety

    Keeping sufferers from resignation syndrome alive through feeding tubes and constant care is essential for their survival, but it's not a cure. The only cure, to date, has been the renewed sense of safety that comes with the grant of permanent asylum or residency. As stated, "if the boy does not have security, he will not wake up in whatever country he is in."

    Thus, some skeptics doubt the validity of the illness and see it as a ploy for immigrants to stay in Sweden. In 2008 the British Medical Journal reported some doctors saw it as a hoax or a form of child abuse where families were forcing their children to fake the illness so they could stay in the country. Rachel Aviv from The New Yorker admitted that seeing the children was surreal, and that the entire situation is difficult to comprehend.