Apathetic refugee children: a Swedish phenomenon

In 2003 the then 11-year old refugee girl Elita Galev was expelled from Sweden after a long application procedure. During that time she had regressed to a psychological state of total paralysis, unresponsive to the outside world.

Now, with around 150 children from families seeking asylum in Sweden having stopped talking, eating and connecting with the world around them, new research suggests that this is a peculiarly Swedish phenomenon.

A first report into the prevalence of acute childhood depression in refugee children will appear in the spring. However, in a press conference at the Foreign Ministry earlier this week Marie Hessle, Coordinator for Apathetic Refugee Children issues, said she had not come across similar cases in other Nordic countries.

Apathetic states are marked by an indifference to the surroundings, an unwillingness to speak, move, eat or drink, and a general vegetative state.

“At this stage the children are admitted to a hospital and become bedridden”, says Marie Hessle, who is head of Stockholm County Council’s child psychiatry refugee unit.

“This is not the best solution, because the children tend to regress even more. Parents become more passive because their responsibility is taken away from them.”

Politicians, researchers and doctors are all bemused at the phenomenon, which mainly affects children from former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and central Asia.

In 2002 some 64 refugee children were being cared for by Stockholm’s psychiatric hospital. In Kronobergs province refugee children are 30 times more likely to be admitted into psychiatric care than Swedish children.

“I have concluded that this problem is specific to Sweden, after recent visits to hospitals in the other Nordic countries, such as Denmark and Norway. There the problem is unknown,” added Hessle last week.

However, when it comes to why this might be the case, neither Marie Hessle nor Immigration minister Barbro Holmgren have an explanation. The government’s only response so far has been to try to speed up the application process for risk families.

“It is tremendously important that we are able to identify the children and families at risk at an early stage, so they can receive appropriate help and support,” said Minister for Migration Barbro Holmberg, when she initiated the report in the autumn.

“Their cases must be given top priority to keep the time they have to wait for a decision as short as possible.”

Sources: Corren, TV4, Dagens Nyheter

Lysanne Sizoo

Lysanne Sizoo is a certified Counsellor, specialising in bereavement, fertility and cultural assimilation issues. She also runs a support and discussion group for English speaking women. You can contact her on [email protected], or 08 717 3769. More information on