DEPORTATIONS of Vietnamese boat people, and their rough handling during the early repatriation exercises, have brought the territory more than its fair share of criticism and international protest. In the eyes of many, particularly Americans and Australians - whose governments accepted thousands of refugees - the 'orderly return programme' for those screened out as non-refugees was cruel and undignified. Now the boot is on the other foot. The Hong Kong Government has been forced to release 125 boat people into the community after Hanoi rejected their applications for voluntary repatriation on the grounds they were not Vietnamese nationals. Faced with court action, the Government has chosen to recognise the weakness of its legal position, but it hopes to push through amendments to the Immigration Ordinance to prevent future court challenges. Australia, by contrast, has not only amended its laws retrospectively to permit the deportation of asylum seekers already screened out elsewhere, but has handled them very roughly indeed. Deportations this week were conducted without prior notification. Some people were carried on to the aircraft bound hand and foot. Hong Kong's record in handling the boat people over the past 15 years has not always been exemplary, particularly in its efforts at riot control in the detention centres. Public attitudes - to some extent manipulated by the Government to help in presenting the case internationally - have hardened. The Government has been accused of hoping to use this week's release of boat people into the community to revive public antipathy and give it an excuse to change the law. China's call for renewed efforts to persuade Vietnam to reconsider is a more appropriate response. But, so far, the Hong Kong Government has not introduced retrospective legislation and its manhandling of deportees has been no rougher than Australia's. It is easy to criticise Hong Kong for its handling of the difficult role of country of first asylum. But as other countries find it necessary to get tough with their own asylum-seekers, they are no longer in a position to act and speak as though they are morally superior.