ONE joke going around the Philippine's main Vietnamese Refugee Centre (VRC) is that its 3,670 inmates have a more reliable power supply than the six million Filipinos in Manila. Power cuts strike the Philippine capital without warning, seven days a week. At the camp near Puerto Princesa, Palawan, full power comes on for about three hours every evening without fail. To the 50,000 residents of Puerto Princesa, who have been playing the reluctant host to the boat people since 1979, the Vietnamese have long since overstayed their welcome in the pristine port city. The VRC is no Whitehead. With its beaches, relatively commodious living quarters, bakeries, schools, training centres, reading rooms and handicap rehabilitation centre, it is the Club Med of Vietnamese boat people camps in Asia. Set up in 1979 by then-president Ferdinand Marcos as a temporary facility, the camp has taken on an unmistakable sense of permanence. When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made a headcount of businesses in the camp, it found 143enterprises - ranging from goldsmiths to barber shops. Spiritual needs of the inmates are ministered at two temples and three churches. Known as ''Little Saigon'', it is where tourists go to sample Vietnamese culture and cuisine on one of the most remote islands in the Philippines. The camp is featured prominently in a colourful brochure handed to every visitor arriving at the local airport. In describing the refugees, it states: ''They bring with them their culture that is unique and interesting, this they generously share to those who come and visit them.'' Inmates are free to come and go between 5 am and 10 pm every day of the week. Some even take holidays, travelling north to visit friends and relatives in the country's only other Vietnamese camp, on the Bataan peninsula north of Manila. Homesick? The Pho Vietnamese restaurant just inside the camp gates serves up affordable and tasty Vietnamese and Filipino dishes, beer and avocado shakes. If the inmates want to go shopping, they can spend the generous donations sent by friends and relatives overseas. Each month, about US$100,000 (about HK$770,000) is sent to inmates. A foreign exchange booth has even been set up on the camp grounds. The Viets' relative affluence has not gone unnoticed by local tricycle drivers, who swarm around camp gates for the high fares that the Vietnamese pay. Some inmates have been living in Palawan so long they speak good Tagalog. The UNHCR pays for the inmates meals and basic supplies. Ironically, only a few feet away from the camp gates are slum shacks with no running water or electricity. One resident said many poor city dwellers go to the camp to beg for rice. ''They have a very nice life here,'' said Tami Sugihara, the chief of the UNHCR field office in Palawan. ''It's very different from the situation in Hongkong. People are free to come and go and to shop. ''They have every basic need and are quite well off. In fact they are better off than most in the local community.'' Offshore, there is a large flotilla of freshly-painted boats which inmates use to catch fish. Puerto Princesa mayor Edward Hagedorn said local fishermen have accused the Vietnamese of over-fishing in local waters and thus depriving locals of large catches. One official said some fishermen from the camp are known to have sailed as far up the coast as Roxas - several kilometres north of Puerto Princesa. In another case cited by the mayor, a local boy was tied to a banana tree by Vietnamese when he refused to allow them to plant a tree on his family's property. ''Animosity is starting to grow,'' Mr Hagedorn said. Even though there is a strict ban against inmates seeking work in town, it is suspected that many do. Camp staff said some men have been caught working for construction and boat-building firms. At its peak, when the camp population hit 12,000, the UNHCR used to fly sick inmates to Manila for treatment, according to one aid worker. Like other first asylum camps in Asia, the VRC is supposed to wind up its operations, and send its inmates home - either voluntarily or by force. Almost all of them have been officially categorised as economic migrants and thus ineligible for resettlement as refugees. In Indonesia, authorities are encouraging inmates to go home by significantly scaling back services. With the relatively comfortable conditions, it is no surprise that the rate of voluntary repatriation from the Philippines has been the lowest in the region. According to UNHCR figures, from 1989 to the end of April this year, only 316 Viets - compared to 28,653 for Hongkong, 3,276 for Indonesia, 1,930 for Malaysia and 6,433 for Thailand - left. The number of births at the camp is enough to make up for the number of those who decide to leave. At last count about 70 women in the camp were pregnant. ''Most don't want to go back to Vietnam,'' said Lieutenant Dennis Dela Cuesta, head of camp security. Only recently have Philippine Government officials been telling the Vietnamese that they want to close the camp by the end of the year and that they will all have to return to Vietnam. But with the exception of some modest cutbacks in UNHCR services, there is very little to indicate the camp is winding down. On the contrary, it appears the exact opposite is happening. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has embarked on a new building project near the camp and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are said to be expanding their services to fill the void left by cutbacks. A Manila-based Western diplomat said the Philippine Government has shown little interest in closing the camp. He said that the international community contributes about US$1.2 million each year to support the operation. Although Mr Hagedorn conceded the camp has a significant economic impact on the provincial capital, he said locals blame the camp for rocketing food prices in the area. ''We prefer it to be closed,'' Mr Hagedorn said. Another factor behind Manila's reluctance to close the camp, aid workers say, is that Catholic and NGOs strongly oppose its closure on humanitarian grounds. Despite evidence to the contrary, officials in such groups believe expelling their Vietnamese ''brothers and sisters'' is tantamount to issuing a death sentence. ''It boils down to the Church versus the government,'' said a Hongkong-based aid worker. ''There are powerful NGOs in Palawan that don't want the camp closed and are opposed to the return of Vietnamese to Vietnam. ''Thus there has been no visible reduction in services other than that by the UNHCR.'' The source added that by agreeing to close the camp, NGOs there would have to fire their workers and face the prospect of having to disband their organisations. He said NGO workers are believed to have actively counselled inmates against going back to Vietnam. Recently, the European Community International Programme (ECIP), which holds seminars in camps throughout the region to encourage Vietnamese to return home, indefinitely suspended visits to Palawan because of a poor response from camp inmates. The UNHCR, which spends about US$1 million each year in Palawan said it is scaling-down contributions to educational programmes at the camp. But UNHCR officials refuse to say what other cuts might be imposed if these attempts to encourage repatriation fail. ''We hope that by the end of the year the camp will shut down,'' said Bernard Quah, the deputy UNHCR representative in Manila. He said the organisation hoped that when a Vietnamese delegation arrives at the camp this month, more will opt to return home. He suggested Manila has not been doing enough to encourage voluntary repatriation. ''The Philippines is one of the most liberal countries to accept asylum seekers,'' he said. Mr Quah said the UNHCR is trying to bring the standard of living in the camp in line with local conditions so as to avoid creating bad feeling among neighbouring residents. UNHCR protection officer Eva Singer said another reason camp inmates are so reluctant to return home is that they are under pressure from family and friends overseas to stay in the Philippines. Going home could mean losing face and facing up to huge debts.