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Waiting for a Home

By Robert O. Boorstin

HONG KONG--THE HEADS OF STATE are long gone from the Geneva conference on "the refugee problem" but Richard--his given American name--is still sitting at the water's edge at the government dockyards down on Canton Road. Richard is Vietnamese, in his thirties and middle-class in his former life. But here he is dressed in a pair of white polyester cotton pajama bottoms. Sores mark his body from the waist up, but that, of course, is only as far as you can see. Richard once was an Air Traffic Controller for the American army. Then he was a farmer. And now he's one of the 66,000 refugees awaiting resettlement in a foreign country. "Any foreign country," says Richard in near-perfect English. "But I like to go the United States"

Our escort from the Royal Hong Kong Immigration Office is impeccably British and always looking for the shadiest spot in which to stand. It is about 90 degrees and the humidity is hovering around 90 per cent. The stench at the dockyard "processing center" is beyond imagination. More than 850 boats have been towed up to this dockside in the past year. Their passengers stay on the boats--some of which are no more than glorified canoes--for about two or three weeks before there is room in the warehouses (the British call them "go-downs") for them. Inside the boats are shelves no more than 4 feet long and 12 inches high. People are crammed into these shelves after they pay their $10,000 to get out of Vietnam--and they don't move until the boat docks at Hong Kong or Malaysia or elsewhere. They relieve themselves in their cubbyholes for the entire 600-mile trip. The man from Immigration calls them "professional refugees," conditioned by an endless war and sent packing in an atmosphere far worse. Their stares are vacant when they arrive at the docks. "What do they think when they enter the harbor?," he wonders out loud. Most of them stay in the processing center, living on rattan mats in the warehouses and washing on the dock, for one or two weeks. "But there are people who have been here for six weeks," he tells us. "It's unavoidable." The refugees get a roof over their heads, two meals a day (one hot, one dry ration), medical assistance (if available) and one airmail letter (with postage) per family. As you walk through the camp, people approach you with scraps of paper and beg you to send telegrams to Washington or call their relatives in Los Angeles.

The Hong Kong government estimates it spends between six and seven Hong Kong dollars (about $1.25 U.S.) per refugee per day. The United Nations is trying hard but little is being accomplished--"the resettlement reaction from foreign countries has been reducing in enthusiasm," our escort explains.

They line up at the side of warehouse no. 1 and carry their possessions on their backs and heads. From here, they will be taken by double-decker bus or truck to one of eight residential camps operating in Kowloon. And of course, these are the lucky ones. For every refugee that makes it this far, experts estimate that five have died along the way.

OVER AT THE Sham Shui Po residential camp on Liechikok Road, James Reid has a problem. Ten thousand of them, in fact. Sham Shui Po is the largest of the eight compounds--row after row of what used to be white army barracks. But now they are filled with refugees, standing in the three foot aisles or lying on the army-issue 4-inch mattresses atop the rows of pink metal bunks. Reid's camp is full-up--ten acres for 10,000 people.

But commandant Reid seems numb to the entire situation. The pale blue walls in his airconditioned office near the camp's entrance are peeling and Reid has been working at Sham Sui Po long enough to know his routine. He takes a long puff on the first of a string of cigarettes and leans back to describe the camp. His voice is as disconnected from what it is saying to you as the camp is from the swankiness and luxury of the Peninsula Hotel--a 15 minute ride away.

The facts are simple enough. Three hundred more refugees arrived today. Sixty per cent of the camp's population is ethnic Chinese, 40 per cent Vietnamese. There are five schools teaching the children their ABC's. Most of the camp is middle-class. There are some family squabbles but no more trouble than one would expect. Reid's biggest problem, and he shakes his head vehemently, is keeping the camp clean. "You cannot install hygiene into them," he says. Outside, there are piles of garbage attracting insects and disease. A woman is kneeling in the middle of the pile and trying to find material for a shirt for her child.

Is there an end to the refugee problem? Reid takes another puff of his cigarette. "Not that I see," he says.

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