Inside a gutted building that was once a Hong Kong clothing factory, 1,500 Vietnamese refugees sleep two to a sheet of plywood. Their hutches are stacked three high on cement floors. Dirty towels hanging from the cubicles provide the only privacy. This is the San Yick refugee camp, the house of hope for Vietnamese who have fled their native country in search of more freedom and less fear.
Tuan Quoc Viet, a 20-year-old who could pass for 14, lives at San Yick. Sweat beads formed like tiny blisters on his forehead as he spoke earnestly about his dream to settle in Oklahoma. His English was broken, but he said ''Oklahoma'' without a hitch, and smiled. Tuan will likely get to Oklahoma, because a relative awaits him there. But he needs the paperwork, and when you're a refugee, paperwork is a glacier. Many refugees wait in the camps for more than five years. But at San Yick, at least they know they will never have to go back to Vietnam.
That's not the case for most of the 50,000 boat people warehoused in 10 crude detention camps in Hong Kong. Only about 15 percent of the people who run away from Vietnam get refugee status and the chance to wait for resettlement elsewhere. The rest are kept in squalid camps surrounded by barbed wire while they wait for Hong Kong to screen them and, if they fail to be adjudged political refugees, to send them back home.
The British-run Hong Kong government has vowed to send back those who are determined to be not political refugees but economic migrants. But after the first forced repatriation in December, international reaction was so severe that Hong Kong backed off. Now detainees pile up, and the tension in the camps increases. Hong Kong has responded by cutting off the camps from the outside world.
Our associate Jim Lynch saw at the Argyle Street Detention Center 1,500 refugees sleeping three to a ''bed'' -- eight-foot by four-foot boards on the floor. Hot water is a luxury saved for the sick. The Vietnamese take turns on the spot of land set aside for recreation. The rest of the time they try to sleep in their sweat or simply stand at the fence with their fingers locked through the holes as they gaze out.
Mike Hanson, coordinator for the Hong Kong refugee camps, admits the government has lost control of detention camps like Whitehead. And he said he sometimes doesn't have control over the zealous security guards either.
Hong Kong is doing its best to make the camps inhospitable and to get that word back to Vietnam. The government sent a documentary videotape to Vietnam showing how grim life is in the camps. The flow of the boats has slowed, but the refugees at Argyle say they would rather live behind barbed wire in Hong Kong than in fear and poverty in Vietnam.
Nguyen Van Oanh, 43, hopes to find a home in Australia. Until then, he says he would rather wait in Argyle. ''There's no point in waiting in Vietnam,'' he said. ''There's no freedom there.''
Before leaving Argyle, Lynch slipped Tuan a business card and a 1964 Kennedy half-dollar as a souvenir of the country he dreams about. A security guard hustled over to Tuan to see exactly what he had. Tuan was allowed to keep the coin. His face clenched into a tight smile, and he raised his fist and the coin over his head in thanks.