Watching children suffer is horrific. But imagine a child being so traumatized by their life experiences that they shut down completely. Not just emotionally, but physically—no eating, no drinking, no talking, no response to any kind of stimulus.
For some refugee children facing possible deportation, this is reality. It’s called resignation syndrome, and like the human devastation syndrome that we’ve seen in child survivors of Syria’s civil war, it’s unbelievably heartbreaking.
Resignation syndrome was first reported in asylum seekers’ kids in Sweden in the 1990s, and though it has been well-documented there, it is still not well-understood. For many years, it was mysteriously only found in that country, but recently cases have emerged on the other side of the globe, on the Australian island of Nauru.
Nauru has become a political hotspot for Australia, as its immigration policies have resulted in more than a thousand refugees being detained at offshore facilities there. More than 100 of the refugees on Nauru are children. Doctors without Borders has released a statement about the “devastating” mental health conditions of those who are stranded there, citing high rates of suicide among the population and traumatic withdrawal syndrome (another term for resignation syndrome) in children.
Dr. Louise Newman, professor of psychiatry at Melbourne University and convenor of Doctors for Justice, told BuzzFeed News that resignation syndrome is an extreme state of withdrawal that can come on as a reaction to trauma —one that is both psychologically protective and physically dangerous for the child at the same time.
“It’s usually been found in situations where there’s no sense of safety around them and they’re traumatised,” she said. “It’s a form of escape or dissociation – they go into a state where they look semiconscious. They might start looking depressed, then they become mute, they stop talking. They withdraw, they don’t interact with anyone, they end up taking to their beds and becoming unconscious.”
Kids with resignation syndrome go into a catatonic state, unresponsive to outside stimuli — even pain. They don’t move. They don’t go use the bathroom. They have to be fed with feeding tubes. If left untreated, the condition can be deadly.
“It’s like going into hibernation,” Newman said. “The world is too hard.”
Essentially, these kids who have witnessed loved ones being slaughtered in front of them, who have endured treacherous journeys across merciless landscapes, and who have left their homelands out of desperation only to repeatedly turned away, have lost all hope. They are literally resigned to the fact that they have no security and no future, and so their minds just shut it all down.
I can’t imagine what it would be like as a parent to watch my child slip into a coma of hopelessness—especially as a parent who had experienced severe trauma myself. I try to put myself in those shoes, but I realize sitting in my comfortable living room in the comparably safe and prosperous country I happened to be born in, it’s impossible.
But it’s clear that these children are telling us something. We need to do more—and we can. The Trump administration slashed the number of refugees the U.S. resettles by more than half last year, and is reducing that number again for 2019. (When Trump took office the refugee ceiling was 110,000. Next year it will be 30,000—a historic low for the U.S.) And this in the face of the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.
It’s a stain on our country’s name and an affront to humanity to close our doors when, at least according to the President, the country has never been doing better.
Taking in refugees has been an American tradition since our founding, and we have a moral obligation to help those who are fleeing violence and persecution. We should not be resigned to children suffering needlessly when it is within our power and our means to do something about it.