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.
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.
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.
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.
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."