What’s Wrong with Innocence

From the Series: Refugees and the Crisis of Europe

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna.

The now iconic image of little Aylan, the three-year old Syrian boy whose body washed up onto a Turkish beach in September 2015, grabbed the world’s attention, eliciting sympathy rather than the usual mix of fear and indifference for those who have left their homes to land on European shores. The photo gave the so-called refugee crisis a new face: innocence. While many say that the photo is what finally shamed Europe into action, images of innocence—and the moral imperative they engender—actually have a long history of hurting those they intend to help.

Why did Aylan catch the world’s attention? As Charles Homan argued in the New York Times Magazine, Aylan’s appearance, including his shoes, shorts, and red shirt, made him look like a Euro-American middle-class child. He looked like “one of us.”

Appearances matter in whether we feel sympathy or not: smugglers know this and have instituted a racial hierarchy on the boats that carry migrants to the borders of Europe. Lighter-skinned migrants are given priority on the safer upper levels, in the hope that whiteness will translate into rescue, rather than death or deportation. While African children have long functioned as exemplary victims, Americans generally help them “over there”—during famines or wars—not “over here.” Donations and humanitarians do the work at a safe distance.

Black children in the United States, particularly black boys, rarely qualify as innocent. A black child cannot innocently pick up a toy gun, as was shown by Tamir Rice: the twelve-year old boy shot and killed by the police in Cleveland, Ohio. For such children, there is no space for innocent unknowing.

The point, of course, is that only some people and some plights get noticed when innocence is what draws our attention to them. Furthermore, while innocence can compel responses to important events such as the refugee crisis, it can also create a distinction between worthy and unworthy victims in these same events.

For instance, since April 2015, innocence has been used to create a distinction in European public discourse between refugees and illegal economic migrants. Although asylum is a legal category we should protect, here it is primarily a moral, not a legal, distinction that purports to separate the deserving from the undeserving. “Real” refugees are seen as innocent, fleeing real, well-founded fears of persecution. They are understood to be passive, vulnerable, and in need of saving.

Economic migrants, in contrast, are portrayed as wily, trying to lie their way into the European welfare state, even as they undermine not only European security but also European values.

Even though the focus on helping innocent refugees may appear generous and humane, it actually functions to limit the numbers of people admitted into Europe: as Hannah Arendt (1951) pointed out decades ago, asylum as a category was only meant for exceptional cases, never for the masses. Indeed, as just one example, Spain granted asylum to just fifteen people in 2014.

To be sure, days after the image of Aylan began to circulate, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom increased the numbers of refugees they were willing to accept. But those claiming asylum must still go through rigorous application procedures and be judged worthy. After all, the Canadian government had already denied legal status to Aylan and his family: it is not clear that he would have been saved by the policies proposed in response to his death. In fact, in the months after those measures were declared, the constraints on asylum applications became more and more apparent: Germany said that it would process asylum applications more quickly not in order to help, but to deport those who do not qualify at record speed.

Photo by Eva Gluszak Castagna, licensed by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen.

Ultimately, innocence works as part of a binary: the flipside is guilt. This frame was most clearly revealed after the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, when France immediately closed its borders, establishing a state of emergency that suspended Schengen rules and rendered refugees guilty for the attacks; the United States and much of Europe followed suit. Refugees moved from innocent to guilty in the blink of an eye.

Innocence is about purity, vulnerability, and naivety; it carries the desire to protect and take responsibility for those who—in their want of knowledge—cannot take care of themselves. Innocence establishes a hierarchical relationship between those who care and those who are cared for.

Of course, care is welcome. But what does it mean to be welcomed as a victim, passive and unable to take care of oneself? In the face of such images, will these migrants be able to get a job once they are up and on their feet again? Will they be trusted as smart, capable, responsible?

Innocence structures our relationships to make some of us saviors and others victims. The process of saving innocent victims often promises absolution to the saviors. It leaves little room to think that we might also be responsible for these migrants’ plight (by helping to create the conditions that they are fleeing, from war and poverty to climate change). It leaves little room to see that we might actually owe them hospitality and welcome.

What, then, is the appropriate response to innocent suffering? The answer is related to the way we perceive refugees; we give them humanitarian assistance and, if they are lucky, we give a small number of them asylum. Yet these are stopgaps, emergency measures designed to act in the present. On the one hand, this is welcome; on the other, working on the basis of innocence can serve as a cover for removing rights from the many in the name of the few. Focusing on these exceptional cases deflects attention from the real problems that lead to such mass movements of people.

What images can possibly render visible and compel us to address the causes of war, poverty, and massive inequality, thereby granting to others what we want for ourselves: the ability to choose the lives we lead?


Arendt, Hannah. 1951. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Meridian.