Children cavort on a playground while their mothers take knitting lessons from a volunteer group of Dutch women. Elsewhere, other Vietnamese refugees attend English classes or help prepare soup in large metal vats for a communal lunch.

The scene scarcely differs from that in other refugee camps in the region, except that these Vietnamese are penned into an area a few hundred yards square on a concrete foundation behind a high, double-chain-link fence topped by large coils of barbed wire, and they are watched over by a guard tower on a hillside.

The facility is what officials of this British colony call a "closed center" for Vietnamese refugees. Established on Lantau Island west of Hong Kong, the Chi Ma Wan camp is designed to "deter refugees from coming to Hong Kong . . . in the face of the continuing high rate of arrivals and diminishing resettlement opportunities," according to the government's Security Branch.

In fact, the Chi Ma Wan center resembles nothing so much as a concentration camp.

Many Vietnamese are likely to spend years there, the officials say. Babies will be born there, and children will grow up there, living on a concrete slab and seeing the world each day through chain link and barbed wire.

Inside the compound, the facilities appear clean and well-run. There is a clinic and quarantine hut, and the camp's kitchen is spotless. Vietnamese employes in white chefs' uniforms shout, "Good morning, sir," as visitors enter.

The discipline is not surprising. The camp is run by Hong Kong's Department of Correctional Services--the same people who run the colony's prisons. A prison is essentially what the camp is, although the authorities stress that the camp's staffers are all temporary hires and have no experience as jailers.

A recent visit to the camp and to other refugee centers in Hong Kong and the Portuguese colony of Macao underscored the sense of hopelessness that afflicts many refugees caught in a web between Southeast Asian nations' growing inhospitality and declining prospects of resettlement in reluctant western countries.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Hong Kong, where a continuing influx of Vietnamese boat people and a growing proportion among them of unskilled farmers and fishermen add to what officials call their "residual" caseload.

The refugee "leftovers" rejected for resettlement are a source of increasing concern to authorities here, who say Hong Kong is already too crowded to accommodate them. Some Hong Kong officials even charge that the United States and other western countries are reneging on their tacit pledge to take in the refugees as long as the region's "countries of first asylum" keep giving them sanctuary.

The colony's assistant secretary in charge of refugee affairs, Stephen Ng, was quoted recently as telling reporters that Hong Kong would seriously consider forcibly repatriating Vietnamese refugees if the flood of boat people continued unabated.

Hong Kong currently has the largest boat-people caseload in the region, with more than 12,300 refugees in its centers. While arrivals in the region dropped 42 percent in 1982 from the year before, Hong Kong experienced only an insignificant 6 percent decrease, according to official statistics.

Meanwhile, officials say, the rate of resettlement abroad has been declining sharply, dropping from 1,800 departures a month at the beginning of 1982 to 100 by November. The officials say that nearly 4,000 Vietnamese refugees have been here for more than three years and that only 5 percent of the total of more than 12,000 has secured firm acceptance from resettlement countries.

"We're worried that we're facing a continuing pattern of arrivals and a declining pattern of departures," said Clinton Leeks, the Security Branch's principal assistant secretary for refugees. "The fact that the resettlement countries have reduced their acceptance by 90 percent suggests that while Hong Kong and other places have kept their part of the bargain, the western countries are no longer keeping theirs."

A government fact sheet said the United States, "which continues to be the main resettlement country, has severely reduced its intake since July 1982." Government statistics listed 6,657 departures for the United States in 1982 compared to 12,222 in 1981.

A major problem, refugee officials said, is that most of the boat people arriving these days are ethnic Vietnamese instead of ethnic Chinese as in the past, and many are from small fishing and farming communities in central and northern Vietnam.

This means that many are ineligible for entry into the United States under a stricter definition of refugee status.

To deter the flow, Hong Kong last July adopted measures similar to Thailand's "humane deterrence" policy. According to government guidelines, "New arrivals are now detained in closed centers where they are not allowed to find outside work and are subject to discipline and control. Visits are strictly regulated and are limited to relatives and close friends."

Now, Hong Kong officials said, the colony is receiving a much smaller percentage of the region's boat people--10 percent of arrivals now, compared to nearly 50 percent when the policy was instituted.

One result of the policy is the Chi Ma Wan camp, which houses 2,059 people in eight crowded barracks--each divided by wooden platforms into three tiers of family sleeping quarters.

Conditions do not appear much better at some "open" centers, although refugees there are permitted to come and go freely.

At Hong Kong's Jubilee Transit Center, nearly 3,000 Vietnamese live crammed into two blocks of condemned four-story buildings made habitable--but barely--by $1 million worth of repairs. They were moved there after a riot last May in another camp in which the northern Vietnamese residents drove out the southern Vietnamese.

"There are refugees who have been here for four years," said Jubilee camp worker Patrick Smith. "The resettlement prospects are getting dimmer and dimmer."

He paused, as if coming to terms with the situation, then added, "We're not really a transit center anymore, because there is no transit."