HONG KONG — THE United States has softened its longstanding opposition to forced repatriation of Vietnamese by condoning talks on the drastic course of action, officials involved in refugee affairs say. Britain, hoping to reduce the surging number of ``boat people'' taking sanctuary in Hong Kong, wants to eject initially more than 17,000 ``economic migrants'' - those it deems fled poverty, not persecution. These migrants might be moved forcibly to a camp in Vietnam run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Eventually, Britain would expel all but an estimated 15 percent of the 52,000 Vietnamese who are in Hong Kong seeking resettlement, local officials say.
Washington has categorically resisted the mandatory return of boat people, citing severe mistreatment of those citizens caught attempting to leave Vietnam illegally.
But on June 5, the US changed its mind, and said it would examine any scheme worked out by Hanoi and London. A State Department spokesman emphasized that London should reconcile its plan with Washington's distaste for mandatory repatriation.
Clifton Leeks, Hong Kong's refugee coordinator, calls this ``a step toward a sensible way of resolving an enormous problem.''
Some officials liken the proposed camps in Vietnam to those recently established under UN supervision for Kurds in Iraq.
``It could be that the statement will allow the [US] to turn its back if Britain carries out a form of involuntary repatriation,'' says John Torgrimson, director of Oxfam Hong Kong, which assists asylum seekers.
The constant inflow of Vietnamese here is severely eroding the commitment of local legislators and officials to maintaining the British colony as a haven for boat people.
Thousands of Vietnamese are jammed in dormitories behind steel fences and barbed wire in camps across the territory. Scores more arrive each day. From Jan. 1 until June 9 this year, 10,472 Vietnamese landed here.
Hong Kong officials reckon no more than 15 percent of the asylum seekers have fled persecution. (It has offered only 6,200 boat people sanctuary until they are resettled abroad.) The other 85 percent would be returned to Vietnam under the British scheme.
British officials shun the term ``forced repatriation,'' saying the plan would be part of an ``orderly return program.''
In the least ``orderly'' phase of the program, officials pulled 51 bawling boat people from a detention center one night in December 1989, and hustled them onto a plane to Hanoi. Facing censure, Britain suspended the practice and urged refugees to voluntarily return. Only 7,111 boat people have done so willingly, says the UNHCR.
Hong Kong officials note that international organizations have yet to document a case in which a boat person who voluntarily returned has been abused by Hanoi.