It was shortly after 7am that the French Navy’s 105-ton patrol boat came into view.
As the P726 Aramis sat quietly on the horizon across the English Channel, we spotted, in front of her, a small shape bobbing in the choppy water.
Sixteen Afghan migrants, including four women and two children, were struggling against the wind in their dangerously overloaded inflatable, and in need of assistance a mile inside French territorial waters.
However, instead of bringing the wet and shivering group on board and returning them to France, the French vessel shepherded the boat towards British waters, where they promptly abandoned it: a practice the French have long been accused of doing, but which has never been independently witnessed by a journalist, until now.
Over the course of 90 minutes, as the sun began to cut through the clouds, I watched as the French Navy sent out a small boat of their own, initially offering the migrants bottled water and life jackets, before motoring towards Britain and asking the migrants to follow.
Sandwiched between France’s largest Navy patrol boat, and a Zodiac not much bigger than their own, crewed by two Gendarmerie in facemasks, the group bailed out water furiously as they approached British waters.
And then, in the middle of the world’s busiest shipping lane, without as much as a wave goodbye, they were left to fend for themselves.
Despite repeated promises by the French President, Interior Minister and other top ranking officials, there was no evidence of any cooperation with British authorities.
Less than ten days ago, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to “step up” cooperation with the UK “against migrant smugglers”, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson “set out that the UK’s aim is to stop the smuggling operations and prevent boats arriving on our shores.”
The pair “agreed to work together in a spirit of cooperation to address the issue.”
However, on Wednesday morning, the French boats simply peeled off with no sign of British Border Force in the area, and the exhausted group continued on their way, their boat being battered by increasing swells.
A bearded man in a dark t-shirt straddled the inflatable hull and dragged his leg in the water as he bailed it out with a modified milk carton.
A teenage girl in a hijab shrieked as a wave washed over her back.
One man in a Lungee (a traditional Afghan headwrap) shouted out and asked which way the UK was.
And then, a small boy peered out from beneath a grey hoodie with a beaming smile, giving us the thumbs up.
They were in British waters. But we could see they were clearly not out of danger.
The Home Office says that the local coastguard had been made aware of the small craft, but this is contested. The captain of the small fishing boat which hosted the Telegraph radioed in and was told they hadn’t heard anything.
Our boat was the only one within a mile of the group, and was asked to stay with the stricken vessel, a white Aquapax inflatable with a £2,000 Suzuki outboard engine.
Then the wind started picking up.
For 40 minutes, they sheltered on the lee side of our boat, protected from the worst of the swell. Behind passed the 143.5m Dutch trawler, Willem Van Der Zwan. Alongside passed a P&O ferry. In front passed a Grimaldi lines container ship.
The small craft chugged low in the water, with no captain, no map and with no idea how far they had to go before they hit land. Until a Border Force Coastal Patrol Vessel appeared in the distance, it was looking like we would have to rescue them ourselves.
A man at the rear, holding the tiller looked as if he was being sick in the foot well.
Despite the UK spending millions of pounds on spotter planes, drones and enhanced surveillance, it seemed to take a small fishing vessel to alert the British authorities to the deteriorating situation out at sea.
By the time ‘Hunter’ came charging towards the scene, winds were gusting as high as 28 knots, and with the swell of the waves lapping over the boat, the migrants were in danger of falling overboard or sinking.
There was no option but to bring them aboard, and in less than ten minutes, the group was plucked one by one from the white inflatable by officials in full PPE suits and face masks.
In the sky, a drone, launched from Lydd airport, buzzed overhead.
One person ditched a small leather shoulder bag before he got on. Inside, it contained a toothbrush and a Samsung phone charger.
And then they were taken to shore. Wrapped in foil blankets, the sodden group trudged up the gangway at Dover Harbour. A man on the shoreline tweeted in all capitals that another ’16 ILLEGAL MIGRANTS’ had arrived.
“They would have gone under if we hadn’t have been there,” said our captain, who does not want to be identified.
“What the French did was a disgrace.”
The first rule of the sea is to protect lives. Yesterday, they could well have been lost.
In response, the French authorities told the Telegraph: “The actions of the maritime authorities are centered on safeguarding human life and safe navigation in the Channel.
“The priority is to assist and rescue each of the boats.
“However, in view of the number of boats attempting to cross the Channel, state resources must assess the level of distress of each of the boats and prioritise according to the needs and risks in which each of the boats are found.”
They added that they had returned 24 people in two vessels to France.
Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, who was on board the same boat as the Telegraph, said: “We have Priti Patel saying what a fantastic job the French are doing, but what I saw today was the French escorting a boat out of French waters and then just dumping the boat in what were rapidly deteriorating conditions.
“I am pretty certain that if we hadn’t been there, that boat would have gone down, because the wind was getting up and the French didn’t even tell the British authorities it was there.
“I’m completely opposed to this cross channel trade in illegal migrants, but at the end of the day, there were 16 Afghans in that boat and they’re still people. Today was a pretty poor show.”
By 10:30 am the group had made it, joining more than 6,300 others who have arrived in this way in 2020, three times as many as last year.
In Westminster, Maddy Allen from Help Refugees told MP’s at the Home Affairs Select Committee that there is “minimal” evidence that the French authorities are actively encouraging people to apply for asylum in France and migrants are being pushed towards boat crossings.
“In terms of the adult population, there is no presence of French authorities, there are no leaders teams on the ground, there is no kind of widely available legal information or legal advice that is available to people to explain the French asylum system.”
“We’re about to head into another dark difficult winter, it leaves people again open to be able to make those crossings, people become more desperate and will attempt to make those crossings to the UK in the absence of protection in France.”