BRITAIN plans to begin forcibly repatriating tens of thousands of boat people from Hong Kong to Vietnam - starting before Christmas. This became clear following Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's refusal to heed President Bush's ``profound disagreement'' with the policy, and as hundreds of Vietnamese in the British-run colony began a hunger strike in protest against the intention to send them back home.
In her talks with Mr. Bush at Camp David on Nov. 24, Mrs. Thatcher said there were some 57,000 boat people living in cramped, unsanitary conditions in Hong Kong camps and that an ``orderly return program'' was imperative. One-third of the boat people, she told Bush, are genuine political refugees. The rest were ``economic migrants.''
Bush, restating his opposition to the repatriation plan, said forcing them to return home was not the answer to the problem.
While the British authorities went ahead with plans to repatriate the boat people, two members of the human rights group Amnesty International arrived in the colony to study the situation. They said they wanted to learn whether the boat people were genuine refugees or economic migrants.
The British say a refugee is someone fleeing political repression; an economic migrant is seeking a better living standard. Speaking in Washington after her talks with Bush, Thatcher said: ``Insofar as they are not genuine refugees, they are illegal immigrants. Therefore we shall have to proceed in sending them back. Hong Kong simply cannot go on taking them.''
Earlier, she told Bush that the boat people should be treated in the same way that the United States treats illegal immigrants from Haiti and Mexico - by sending them back.
The British repatriation plan is reported to involve three Gurkha battalions (troops from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal who serve in the British Army) standing guard as the boat people are placed aboard chartered ships and aircraft. The date of return is being kept secret to avoid disruption and panic.
The British Foreign Office says it is close to agreement with the government of Vietnam to provide financial help to boat people once they return home.
When Thatcher returned to London, she immediately set in motion arrangements for repatriating the boat people.
Her decision drew a bitter response from the Labour Party. George Foulkes, its foreign affairs spokesman, urged Parliament to debate the question ``before the government embark on a course of action which will bring worldwide condemnation and disgrace to Britain.''
Mr. Foulkes went on: ``The plan is expedient, discriminatory, and heartless. There has been no whole-hearted attempt to use persuasion to increase the voluntary return or to help encourage it by funding a comprehensive resettlement program in Vietnam.''
William Waldegrave, a British Foreign Office minister, said Bush had been wrong to condemn the intention to send the boat people back home. ``We have to do something. I do not know what else there is to do,'' he said.
The Labour Party's answer is that the government is acting too hastily, and that more time should be given for a voluntary repatriation program sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take effect.
Since the beginning of this year, 500 boat people have returned to Vietnam under the UN scheme. UN officials say another 1,500 people have formally applied to return to Vietnam, and that applications are running at the rate of 150 a week.
This however is not fast enough for the British government, which is worried that early next year, when the new sailing season begins, another wave of boat people will leave Vietnam, bound for Hong Kong. There they will find conditions of considerable squalor in the camps assigned to them. One British official said there was a threat of cholera if more newcomers were crammed into makeshift accommodation. Conditions inside the camps were already ``disturbing,'' the official said.