Flat White

Nauru kids and “resignation syndrome”: a political diagnosis

30 October 2018

7:46 AM

30 October 2018

7:46 AM

The term “resignation syndrome” arose just over a decade ago in Sweden. It described what doctors were seeing among refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia. Children became listless withdrawing from communication and refusing to eat and drink. The decline was closely linked to failed migration claims.

Intriguingly, several of the children also reported anger that their parents had not made stronger attempts to learn Swedish and integrate locally.

The cure, unique in medical history, was to receive permanent residency into Sweden. While not immediate, the children would steadily recover as the families began to build their new Swedish lives.

Now the term has become a new political football in the latest round of the politics of asylum. Like Sweden, I can understand how colleagues and the public at large struggle to tolerate the stories of desperately ill children.

In combination with the Syrian crisis and Angela Merkel’s catastrophic response in opening the doors to asylum seekers, Sweden’s recent history of taking hundreds of thousands of refugees originated in the discomfort Swedes felt about children suffering from resignation syndrome. Much like Germany, it has now led to the rise of anti-immigration sentiment and a hamstrung new government.

The term resignation syndrome has only arisen in Australian discourse this year, an example of the globalisation of refugee illness behaviour.

Activist paediatrician David Isaaks, in an interview to ABC radio, spoke of how the children suffering resignation syndrome were perfectly well barely a month ago. This exposes the lie that conditions in Nauru are intolerable. Much like in Sweden, the decline in health is almost entirely linked to failed migration claims.

A significant number of those left in Nauru were rejected recently from United States processing. Peter Dutton has since said that those who did receive clearance to live in the United States have expressed disappointment at the less generous resettlement programs and welfare safety net in the land of the free. The same refugees have told those in Nauru that Australia or New Zealand remain much better options.

There is no question that long-term uncertainty regarding one’s future is distressing, but the physical conditions in Nauru where the asylum seekers are clothed, sheltered and fed have little to do with it.


This kind of mental distress is about failed expectations and life stories veering off course, what Israeli sociologist Aaron Antonovsky calls a “sense of incoherence” as being the key contributor to psychological decline.

The children’s decline is the physical expression of a psychological response, one that reflects the disappointment and anger the families are experiencing. Children are considered the canaries in the mine in family systems, even more so in traditional cultures where collectivism is dominant.

And although it may not be consciously acted, much like self-harm, it is another attempt to manipulate the authorities and a public who have limited exposure to poverty and developing world suffering. Self-harm is an expression of distress, often internalised frustration, in the hope of exerting control over one’s environment.

The manipulation is working. Recent polls suggest the public has had enough and up to eighty per cent in a Galaxy survey support taking up New Zealand’s offer. How workable this is remains to be seen. The same polls find that over sixty per cent continue to support strong border protection policies. Dave Sharma, writing in The Australian, also supports the neutralisation of the Nauru problem. I tend to agree. It has gone on for too long and is a detriment to coherent policy messages regarding immigration.

While shifting the asylum seekers will embolden both people smugglers and refugee activists temporarily, if combined with an extra firm response in the northern sea channels, the policy can retain legitimacy.

What the same activists are failing to realise is that strong border protection measures are one of the key reasons that so-called “far right” anti-immigration groups have barely registered in Australia. In an interview to Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher, world-renowned political scientists Francis Fukuyama of The End of History fame expressed this sentiment. It was reiterated by the Economist magazine last month.

Anybody who claims Australians are unwelcoming to migrants fails to recognise that we have among the highest rates of migration in the Western world, comprising primarily of Asians, and we spend the most funds per refugee in resettlement costs.

While it is clearly larger in scale and more visible, those coming in boats to Australia are not much different to the migration caravan comprising thousands of Hondurans marching towards the United States.

Such displays are attempts to intimidate and manipulate Western populations into being looser with their borders. Those seeking migration outcomes can hardly be blamed for wanting a better life for their families.

The key driver, as articulated by global migration expert Paul Collier from Oxford University, is inequality. It is neither war, famine or persecution. It is the force of osmosis attracting those from the world of disorder to the world of order.

Unfortunately, those locals who can only gain a sense of authenticity and truth from their feelings then invite the forces of disorder into Western countries with otherwise better-administered systems.

By definition borders are exclusionary, but most of us cannot see the hundreds of thousands of wannabe Australians rejected in their applications through regulated channels, filling in forms, completing courses and raising funds. They garner no sympathy because they are unseen. Many are my own relatives.

It is unlikely the nation-state is some kind of end game for the human species. Most trends are still towards greater unification. But we are experiencing a stage in our history, almost seventy years after the end of the World War II, where collective identity through nationalism is making a comeback as a protest against inexorable globalisation.

Seventy years is approximately the average lifespan of a human being so the time is perhaps no coincidence.

The so-called resignation syndrome is a political diagnosis documenting a cultural expression of distress and self-harm, much like Soviets had diagnoses like “delusions of capitalism”.

On balance it is reasonable to accommodate the final, relatively small group of asylum seekers but to remain steadfast that histrionic displays of self-harm will not be effective ways of manipulating migration policy.

Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and commentator.

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