The migrant crisis at Calais is a story of human misery, war-torn and broken states and European denial. It speaks to a world in which advanced nations have lost the will, and some of the capacity, to prevent and resolve conflicts. Their politicians will not find an answer by drafting in more police or building higher fences.

An estimated 5,000 people are camped, in dreadful conditions, around the French ferry port and its entrance to the cross-Channel tunnel. The numbers have been rising through the year. So has the desperation of the migrants to make it across the 21-mile sliver of sea that separates France from Britain.

The governments of the two counties have spent tens of millions of euros on security measures to prevent the migrants from clambering on to trucks and trains. The effort, predictably, has been futile. This is what happens when policymakers opt to treat symptoms rather than causes.

Calais is the end of a funnel that has seen tens of thousands of migrants fleeing war and destitution in the Maghreb and beyond. Some are what politicians disdainfully call “economic migrants” — as if it is somehow reprehensible to seek an escape route from poverty and worse — but the largest portion are the victims of war. Syrians head the list, followed by Eritreans, Somalis, Iraqis and Afghans. What unites them is a belief that any risk — trekking thousands of kilometres across Turkey and the Balkans, drowning in the Mediterranean, falling under a truck or a train at Calais — is small measured against the dangers at home.

There is nothing new about large movements of displaced people. In recent memory, Europe has managed the influx of refugees from the former Yugoslavia as well as those from seemingly never-ending conflicts in Somalia and Afghanistan. What has changed — and this was a point eloquently made by Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, when he gave the Ditchley Foundation annual lecture last month — is the spread and persistence of conflicts in failed and failing states. The pendulum in advanced nations has swung from liberal interventionism to furtive inaction.

Guterres observed that five years ago an estimated 11,000 people were fleeing war every day. By last year the figure had quadrupled to more than 42,000. Of these roughly two-thirds were internally displaced, but the remainder were forced to seek refuge abroad. The contrast he drew was with the 1990s. Then, albeit sometimes after much hesitation, rich nations acted — in Bosnia and Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor. Now, whether it is South Sudan, the Central African Republic or Syria, the chosen posture is quiescence. Ten years ago the UNHCR helped a million people a year return to former conflict zones restored to stability. By 2014 the number had fallen to 126,000.

For all the panic generated by the 5,000 camped in the so-called “jungle” at Calais, Europe has been only slightly touched. Running scared of the populist right, politicians have lost a sense of proportion. An estimated 150,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean in the first half of this year. That is much more than in 2014, but it is to be measured against a population for the 28-nation EU of about 500 million; and it remains a small fraction of the 4 million who have fled the civil war in Syria. Up to 2 million Syrians have fled to Turkey and, as Guterres noted, fully one-third of the population of Lebanon now comprises Syrian or Palestinian refugees.

European governments argue about how to share out the “burden” of 40,000 asylum seekers — most of them young men, many highly skilled and all eager for work as well as sanctuary. Germany and Sweden, two nations more open than most to the migrants, will profit from their generosity.

It should be obvious that individual states cannot go it alone. Barriers are being thrown up by nations across the continent. At very best they simply divert the problem. There are some in Britain who blame Europe for the crisis. These eurosceptics claim that by leaving the EU, Britain could reclaim control of its borders. The Calais crisis points precisely in the opposite direction. Without French co-operation British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government would be powerless. Europe’s problem is Britain’s problem, and vice versa.

The pretence that fences are an answer pours fuel on to the fires of anti-immigrant populism. Voters are less worried by numbers than by the sense that governments have lost control. One answer is to replace the Calais jungle with Europe-wide centres to document the refugees and, if necessary, return illegal migrants to their home nations.

If genuine asylum seekers are to be persuaded not to risk life and limb crossing the Mediterranean or the Channel, EU governments must also offer legitimate routes to settlement. As for domestic public opinion, the politicians should have learnt by now that chaos fuels fear; fair, effective management provides reassurance.

The world has changed. The relative power of Europe has slipped still faster than that of the US, and with it the capacity to fix problems in its neighbourhood. That is not to say it can abdicate responsibility. The EU still has the tools — economic, political and military — to promote order beyond its borders, sometimes on its own, more often as a convening power. The Calais crisis is just one more a lesson in the costs of hiding under the bedcovers.

— Financial Times