News reports have in recent weeks broadcast dramatic footage of child asylum-seekers lying lifeless in their beds, some staring aimlessly at the ceiling and being fed through a tube as their distraught parents, helpless, look on.
A total of 410 children seeking asylum have since January 2003 experienced some form of acute depression resulting in various degrees of apathy. Most of them are between the ages of eight and 15, and in the most extreme cases they have regressed into a psychological state of total paralysis that can last a year or more.
A government report on the issue published last week suggested that the phenomenon, dubbed “apathetic refugee children” in the media, was unique to Sweden since no evidence of similar cases could be found in other countries.
The report said the cause remained unknown.
“This is a mystery to us. We need to do further studies to find out why this is happening to these children,” the co-author of the report, Stockholm University sociology lecturer Nader Ahmadi, told AFP.
The study showed that 60 percent of the affected children are from former Soviet states, 20 percent are from the former Yugoslavia, and the remaining 20 percent are from Bangladesh and Africa.
Ahmadi said he did not know why these children were more likely to cut themselves off from the outside world.
“Their situation is serious but there are worse catastrophe areas … Why not Iraqis or Palestinians? Why not children with AIDS who risk deportation to Africa? They don’t have much hope either,” he said.
But critics have lambasted the report on numerous points, insisting that the problem is not specific to Sweden and suggesting that the country’s lengthy asylum process – and the resulting insecurity children experience – is partly to blame for their despair.
Psychotherapist Monica Brendler, who works for the Swedish branch of Save the Children, is among the critics.
“Apathetic children is not a Swedish phenomenon. Children can react in this way and have done so in other countries as well,” she told AFP, accusing the authors of “not doing enough research” since they only examined the occurrence among child asylum-seekers and not the country’s population as a whole.
Brendler said she knew for example of Swedish children who experienced similar symptoms after their parents’ divorce.
“Psychological suffering is expressed in many ways in different situations,” she said.
“These children need to be treated in an environment where they feel safe. They need to be granted permanent residency. I’m convinced that that is a prerequisite for them to get better. They won’t get better as long as they are living in insecurity,” she said.
Ahmadi rejected however the notion that the asylum process was at the root of the problem.
“I don’t think Sweden’s asylum policy is any stricter than anywhere else. The waiting period is long but no longer than anywhere else,” he said.
Under Swedish law, refugee children suffering from life-threatening illness cannot be deported. As a result, calls have been voiced for these children and their families to be granted permanent residency status for humanitarian reasons.
In early April, the Swedish parliament rejected a motion to give permanent residency to all 163 apathetic asylum-seeking children currently under treatment, insisting that their cases needed to be reviewed individually.
But after the publication of the report, the Swedish Migration Board on Friday decided to freeze all deportations pending further guidelines from the government on how to handle their cases.
And the National Board of Health and Welfare said it hoped to soon send out recommendations on how to treat these children medically.
That news was welcomed in particular by the Children’s Ombudsman, Lena Nyberg.
“Children suffering from apathy is not primarily a migration issue, it is a medical issue,” she said.