At least some of the so-called apathetic refugee children, who mysteriously fell ill when their families were denied asylum in Sweden, were forced to play sick to get their families a residence permit, a journalist investigation has revealed.
A Serbian man and an Armenian woman have shared their traumatic experiences of being forced to fake apathy by their parents in order to obtain a residence permit to the magazine Filter, describing them as “hell”.
“I wasn't allowed to open my eyes. But since I couldn't always keep them shut, I got a hard slap in the neck,” the man acknowledged.
By his own admission, he was forced to sit in a wheelchair, was not given enough food, and wasn't allowed to meet friends. Also, his parents lied that he had epileptic seizures.
“I prayed to God someone would say to my dad: 'What are you doing, your kid is healthy?'. They were trained doctors, they should have noticed. But no one said anything,” the man recalled.
At the age of twelve, he attempted suicide, but survived. Today, he left his family and was granted a residence permit in 2015.
The Armenian woman related a similar story. In the fall of 2009, when she was ten years old, her father and stepmother decided that she would act apathetic. She was taken out of school and slapped with a number of rules: don't talk, don't smile, never go out alone, don't respond to anything.
“I remember my stepmother would cook, and the food smell was all over the place, but I couldn't eat. Sometimes I could sneak up and grab a piece of bread or something, because I was so hungry,” the woman tells Filter.
The purpose of the whole thing was to get a residence permit, but after a year, the father became so afraid of being exposed that the girl had to get “healthy” again. She was later placed in a family home and has now been granted a residence permit of her own.
The phenomenon of apathetic children, also known as “depressive de-vitalisation”. has been documented almost exclusively in Sweden, sparking a medical and political debate that divided pundits and laymen alike. While some claimed that the children were indeed sick, others suggested they were merely a chip in the asylum game and were manipulated into playing apathetic.
The first such case was registered in 1998 and featured a 15-year-old Chechen boy, who neither ate nor talked and had stopped walking. However, four weeks after his family was granted a residence permit, he was fully healthy again.
A 2005 state investigation described kids at the refugee medical unit in Gällivare voluntarily stopping eating and drinking out of hope that it would help their family stay in Sweden.
The same year, the National Board of Social Services issued the following instruction: “Although there is no consensus on how common manipulative behaviour is, it is important that those responsible for care for asylum seekers always take this opportunity into account.”
Still, many professionals, including psychiatrist Lars Joelsson, who took care of the Chechen boy who became the first ever “apathetic refugee child”, maintain that people should be open to all explanations. He described several patients as “genuinely sick and traumatised”.
Although the debate has waned somewhat in recent years, several hundred children have been treated for apathy in recent years alone.