My daughter sent me the following unbelievable article by Rachel Aviv from the April 3, 2017 issue of the New Yorker, "The Trauma of Deportation." It takes place in Sweden where hundreds of children have become unconscious when faced with deportation. The irony is that Sweden is noted for its humanitarian ideals and practices. It has accepted more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation. In the past three years, three hundred thousand refugees have sought asylum is Sweden. There has been a rising tide of citizens who feel the entry door should be narrowed and thus the qualifications for asylum narrowed. “By 2005, more than four hundred children, most between the ages of eight and fifteen, had fallen into the (unconscious) condition.” “Last year, some sixty children lost the ability to move and to speak. There is now universal consensus that the children are not faking… ” (Parentheses in this blog are mine.)
One label for the “condition” is “resignation syndrome:” “The patients seem to have lost the will to live. ‘They are like Snow White,” one doctor said. “They just fall away from the world.” This syndrome has only occurred in Sweden and among refugees. The head of child psychiatry in Stockholm called it a kind of willed dying. None of the children have died but none have spontaneously gotten better without a change in deportation status, even after deportation.
Georgi, a thirteen year old boy, is featured in the article. He grew up in Sweden and was a popular and smart boy. His classmates and teachers describe him as “energetic, fun, happy all the time, good human being, amazingly kind, awesome at soccer.”
In December, 2015, Georgi read the deportation letter. It was scheduled for April. “Georgi read the letter silently, dropped it on the floor, went upstairs to his room, and lay down on the bed. He said that his body began to feel as if it were entirely liquid. His limbs felt soft and porous. All he wanted to do was close his eyes. Even swallowing required an effort that he didn’t feel he could muster. He felt a deep pressure in his brain and in his ears.” His mother tried to give him soda with a teaspoon but it dribbled down his chin. He became increasingly withdrawn, was hospitalized, and fed through a tube. Friends and teachers visited him and read to him but he showed no reaction. One doctor wrote: “The boy is alive but barely.”
As with the other children in a similar condition, Elisabeth Hultcrantz, M.D. was called. She volunteers for Doctors of the World and makes heroic long distance trips to visit these children. She is described as grandmotherly and has been a forceful advocate for the children, asserting that the only cure is to be able to stay in Sweden. She wrote, “If the boy can get secure residency with his entire family, the prognosis is good and you can expect a full continuous recovery within one year…If the boy does not have security, he will not wake up in whatever country he is in.”
“Swedish news programs broadcast footage of children on stretchers being loaded into airplanes and expelled from the country. Sweden prides itself on its commitment to helping the most vulnerable, and the illness was seen as an affront to the country’s national character. Even the King was alarmed, ‘It’s terrible, what is happening to these poor children,’ he told the press in 2005. (A psychologist tracked down an apathetic boy who had been deported to Serbia and found him six months later, still unconscious, his skin sallow, in a one-room house with no running water).”
Rachel Aviv writes: “No country has responded to refugees, arguably the moral crisis of our era, with greater diligence and conscientiousness than Sweden. The apathetic children embody the country’s fantasy of what will become of the most vulnerable if Sweden abandons its values. The children are embedded in a moral and political debate that is central to the country’s identity, complete with heroes (doctors), victims (parents), and villains (those who doubt the victim’s suffering)…Karin Johannisson, a Swedish historian, wrote, ‘Never had the ethics of compassion had such power, fed by vague historical guilt. This was about the whole image of Sweden – a country dripping with wealth but prepared to deport the most defenseless’. Swedes have an admirable capacity to blame themselves for failures of empathy.”
“A hundred and sixty thousand Swedes signed a petition to stop the deportations of apathetic children and other asylum seekers. Five of Sweden’s seven political parties demanded amnesty for apathetic patients. ‘Mission Investigate,’ Gellert Tamas, one of country’s best-known journalists reported, ‘The issue is only a few hours from bringing down the government.” The Migration Board began allowing apathetic children and their families to stay. Georgi’s parents got such a notice.
Georgi very gradually came back to life when he noted subtle positive tones in the family. Within a week he was joking with classmates. In retrospect, he said that he did not know he had visitors when he was unconscious. He felt “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’.” He said he would never want to go back “to the glass cage”. “My whole body was like water.” He continued: “Slowly, after some weeks or a month, I understood that it wasn’t real…The glass wasn’t real. And now – now I understand that it wasn’t real at all. But, at that time, it was very difficult, because every move could kill you. I was living there (in the glass cage).”
Aviv, Rachel, “The Trauma of Facing Deportation,” The New Yorker Magazine, April 3, 2017.