Refugee children in Sweden falling into comas upon learning that they'll be deported

The apathetic children began showing up in Swedish emergency rooms in the early two-thousands. Their parents were convinced that they were dying. Of what, they didn’t know; they worried about cholera or some unknown plague. Soon patients with the condition filled all the beds in Stockholm’s only psychiatric inpatient unit for children, at Karolinska University Hospital. Göran Bodegård, the director of the unit, told me that he felt claustrophobic when he entered the rooms. “An atmosphere of Michelangelo’s ‘Pietà’ lingered around the child,” he said. The blinds were drawn, and the lights were off. The mothers whispered, rarely spoke to their sick children, and stared into the darkness.

By 2005, more than four hundred children, most between the ages of eight and fifteen, had fallen into the condition. In the medical journal Acta Pædiatrica, Bodegård described the typical patient as “totally passive, immobile, lacks tonus, withdrawn, mute, unable to eat and drink, incontinent and not reacting to physical stimuli or pain.” Nearly all the children had emigrated from former Soviet and Yugoslav states, and a disproportionate number were Roma or Uyghur. Sweden has been a haven for refugees since the seventies, accepting more asylum seekers per capita than any other European nation, but the country’s definition of political refugees had recently narrowed. Families fleeing countries that were not at war were often denied asylum.

In an open letter to the Swedish minister of migration, forty-two psychiatrists asserted that the new restrictions on asylum seekers and the time it took the Migration Board to process their applications—children could be in limbo for years—were causing the disease. They accused the government of “systematic public child abuse.” Opinion within the medical community converged on the theory that the illness was a reaction to two traumas: harassment in the children’s home country, and the dread, after acclimating to Swedish society, of returning. Sweden’s leading medical journal, Läkartidningen, devoted dozens of articles, and several poems, to the syndrome. “Your eyes had seen it all / aged with an old man’s weariness without any hope of life in the future,” Mildred Oudin, the chief of child psychiatry in Skövde, in central Sweden, wrote. Magnus Kihlbom, the director of an institute for child psychiatry in Stockholm, proposed in the journal that the disorder represented a kind of willed dying. Kihlbom cited the psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote that some prisoners in the concentration camps were “so totally exhausted, both physically and emotionally, that they had given the environment total power over them.” They “stopped eating, sat mute and motionless in corners, and expired.”