Inhuman responses to distressed children

April 12, 2012 —

Written by Frances Webber

A report on ‘apathetic children’ in Sweden is important for UK asylum campaigners for the light it sheds on a condition so far unrecognised here.

This useful report from Sweden throws light on the authorities’ treatment of children in asylum-seeking families who have developed severe depressive devitalisation (‘apathetic children’). The children become extremely distressed and gradually lose all interest in their surroundings, stop communicating, eventually stop eating and become immobile, unable to do anything for themselves and completely unresponsive. The condition can be life-threatening. Government doctors do not accept that there is such a medical condition, although children with these symptoms are frequently diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and from depression. The report was written to demonstrate that the condition exists, that it affected half of a sample of children in asylum seeking families who were studied over three months in 2011, that it is a response to traumatic events either experienced or witnessed and is exacerbated by the disbelieving and unsympathetic response of the Swedish authorities.

We recognise in this report the kinds of institutionalised inhumanity, twisted logic and dishonesty used to justify refusal of residence permits to these children. A severely traumatised child is deemed not to need a residence permit on compassionate grounds because, fed by a nose tube, she is putting on weight. Conversely, a child who is showing no signs of improvement in her condition is said to be incapable of responding to treatment, so can be returned to her home country (where no treatment exists). The high cost of in-patient treatment rules out a residence permit for a third child. The report demonstrates the failure to listen to the children themselves, and the massive gap between the Swedish Migration Board’s obligation to put children’s welfare first and its practice in relation to these distressed children and their families.

The issue of apathetic children has attracted enormous medical, political and media attention both in Sweden and in Australia, but remains unrecognised in the UK, and this report may encourage doctors to understand asylum-seeking children’s responses in a new light. The report is in Swedish, for a Swedish audience, but has been translated into English. There are some difficulties in translation, but making allowances for these, it is a valuable piece of work for others to build on.


Children without a voice can be viewed and downloaded here


Etikkommissionen i Sverige: Children without a voice: Report on children with symptoms of severe depressive devitalisation who have been refused asylum and protection in Sweden, January 2012.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.


No comments yet.

Write a comment