RESIGNATION SYNDROME: the deep sleep of migrant children

Have you ever heard of Resignation Syndrome? Also, known as Snow White Syndrome?This syndrome, of which little is known, occurs with a higher incidence in Sweden (sporadic cases have also been found in other areas of Northern Europe). According to recent studies, this condition tends to occur in children aged 7 to 19 belonging to families seeking asylum.

Children who are affected by the disease are often described as full of life and determination, until one day they fall into a condition similar to a coma, although they continue to receive external stimuli without being able to respond to them.This event occurs silently: there is progressively isolation and subsequently conditions worsen until even nourishment is refused.The syndrome, as previously mentioned, was mainly observed in Sweden among asylum seekers from the so-called “source regions”: Armenians, and Muslims from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Azerbaijan.

Most of these families come from risky contexts, whereas minorities have to deal with discrimination, persecution, and severe traumatic experiences. For such families, reaching a safe place represents hope. In Sweden, the examination of asylum applications follows an extremely slow procedure and there are not rare cases in which the refusal can take place even after years. In the time that elapses between the submission of the application and its outcome, many of the children within the families enter new social environments, learn the language and forge new bonds, starting a new chapter. For this reason, discovering the rejection of the asylum application destroys hopes and expectations.

For many children, the initial reaction is the expression of great anger and intolerable anguish, feelings linked to the fact that they have to give up what they have laboriously conquered up to that moment and to the awareness of having to come back to their homeland, a traumatic, cruel and inhospitable place. Especially for the little ones, the anguish caused by this verdict is intolerable, the disappointment of families, the uncertainty of the future, the disappearance of the prospect of a safe environment, bring back past traumas, and increase concerns for the future. The only cure currently recognized for the young patients suffering from Resignation Syndrome is obtaining an asylum permit, which ensures the possibility of rebuilding a stable life with their families. Even in that state of deep sleep, the subjects can process the news of obtaining the asylum permit, as they can perceive the removal of tension, fear, and anguish on the part of their loved ones. This leads to a slow awakening in a climate of new hope.

The exponents of the Swedish government, especially those who carry the nationalist ideals of the far-right, often tend to discourage the dissemination of information regarding Resignation Syndrome by considering it a fiction put in place by families seeking asylum, to extend their stay on the territory as much as possible. However, many psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors agree that this condition cannot be considered fiction. Furthermore, according to reliable medical findings, the hypothesis that the children had been poisoned by their families was immediately excluded.

A useful model to explain this syndrome can be the “learned helplessness” paradigm formulated by Seligman. The famous psychologist demonstrated how laboratory mice subjected to intense electroshock numerous times, not having the possibility to escape, decided to surrender to the pain, remaining helpless. Even when put in front of the possibility to escape, the guinea pigs remained in a state of helplessness, learned from previous experiences. It could be said that this is also what happens to children who are affected by Resignation Syndrome.

Many questions remain open following these first studies, but perhaps one question is more pressing than the others: why did these phenomena develop mainly in Sweden?
Many researchers hypothesize the emergence of a new cultural syndrome: that is, a condition of mental disorder, of short or long duration, strongly connected with the cultural context of the individuals who are affected by it.

According to the thesis of Karl Sallin, a Swedish neurologist and pediatrician at the head of a research group on Resignation Syndrome, children tend to internalize the behavior patterns present in the country and related to their social and cultural environment. A collective emulation would have spread following the dissemination of news and information relating to the syndrome throughout the Swedish territory. This would explain the reason for the particular geographical expression of the phenomenon and its diffusion only in a specific group of individuals. Even today we do not know how to prevent the manifestation of this disease, however, there are strong hypotheses about its causes and its methods of resolution.

It is certainly necessary to research the physiological particularities of the phenomenon and its structure at a somatopsychic level, but at the same time, it seems appropriate to question the source that causes Resignation Syndrome. We should make important reflections on the political level, especially on the theme of the management of migratory flows, which often see us taking an increasingly detached and less and less human gaze.

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