EVERY NIGHT, THE gloomy underside of a Shamshuipo flyover becomes a little Vietnam. Broken men, sitting on broken stools and grimy makeshift beds, chat in their mother tongue and drink tea from their homeland. The group of about 10 are all former Vietnam refugees - now middle-aged, some drug addicted, some who've lost contact with families, all out of work and homeless. Daily, they live with traffic noise, police harassment and mosquitoes. For them, the flyover isn't just a place to sleep, but a home where the men - northerners and southerners - stick together for comfort, companionship and safety. With no steady income, they hit up friends for money, food and jobs. Among them is Pham Ngoc Tuan. 'I never imagined my life would become like this and that I would sleep on the streets,' says Tuan, 42, who fled Hanoi in 1985 to escape persecution because his father was an army officer with the French. He lives in the hope of starting a new life abroad - not in Hong Kong. In his 18 years in Hong Kong, Tuan has worked in supermarkets, factories and on building sites. In recent years, he found himself constantly out of work as the economy slumped. In 2000, the government closed the last refugee camp, Pillar Point in Tuen Mun, and he was homeless. 'That's when I started sleeping on the streets,' Tuan says. 'With a few camp friends, I moved to Shamshuipo, where it was easier to find construction work. At first, we were scared the local street sleepers would bully us, but they were accepting. The only trouble is with the police, who always try to move us on.' Tuan says a further eight or so Vietnamese live in a nearby park, and as many as 20 live in a Tuen Mun community centre podium. They're among an estimated 2,000 Vietnamese former boatpeople living in Hong Kong. In 1998, the government ended its policy of being a port of first asylum. Next, it closed Pillar Point, an open camp, and granted remaining detainees permanent residency. But given the social prejudice, and their lack of local networks or language skills, many are isolated. Although some own businesses and homes, most find themselves living on the edge of society. 'When we were allowed out of Pillar Point, we had no money,' Tuan says. 'Only some single mothers with children were given government flats. Those with illnesses got a rental allowance of $3,000 to $4,000 and social welfare. The rest of us had no money and we were immediately on our own. We try to find jobs, but no one hires us.' His friend, Tran Van Tuan, 34, lies back on a rickety chair under the flyover. 'No one hires us,' he says. 'I have no money to take buses to find jobs. So, I went pickpocketing. I was just released from prison last week.' Like other refugees, the street sleepers were eligible for resettlement in the west, but were rejected because of illness, criminal records or drug addiction. Hong Kong's refugee saga started on April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese pushed into Saigon, defeating the US-backed South and uniting the country. Then began a dark era of persecution and poverty that prompted hundreds of thousands to flee. They gambled with their lives. Those accepted as refugees were able to settle in the west, mainly the US, Canada and Australia, where many started businesses. But others wound up in cramped and diseased camps - many in Hong Kong - that were ravaged by drugs and despair. The Clara Maersk, a Danish cargo vessel that rescued 3,743 men, women and children from their sinking vessel in the South China Sea, was the first to bring Vietnamese refugees to the then British colony - starting a two-decade saga that changed Hong Kong. It was May 4, 1975 - four days after the fall of Saigon. Aid worker Tam Mo-bun, 54, says he can still see the haunted and hopeful faces of the refugees crowding the railings of a ship at Kwai Chung container port, as if they arrived yesterday. They looked puzzled and scared,' says Tam, one of 20 Civil Aid Service workers called in to help. 'Mothers were holding their babies waiting to be lifted onto barges. Children, few of them wearing trousers, were crying. Some adults knelt on the deck and prayed. We escorted them to the dockyard. There were so many people it took us nearly two weeks to take them all off the ship.' After that first landing, other boats started arriving with refugees, among them the Huey Fong with 3,318 refugees and the Skyluck with 2,664. In 1979, foreign ministers met in Geneva and agreed that anyone fleeing Vietnam would get refugee status and resettlement. By then, there were 51,785 Vietnamese in open Hong Kong camps. 'Men got jobs as transport workers and coolies, and some women worked as prostitutes in Shamshuipo and sent their money home,' Tam says. Locals worried about crime and losing their jobs to Vietnamese labour were less sympathetic. 'Some people said the government should tow them to the open sea,' Tam says. 'Some suggested shipping them to Macau.' Caritas Hong Kong social worker Brenda Ku Wing-chee, who supervised the group's assistance to camp people, says some locals were also angry about discrimination between the refugees and mainland illegal immigrants. 'People were asking why the government was helping the Vietnamese while rejecting entry of their mainland relatives,' Ku says. In July 1982, the government introduced a closed-camp policy as a deterrent to arrivals. New refugees were kept behind razor-wire fences and barred from working. In June 1988, the government renounced the Geneva agreement and introduced a screening process to determine genuine political refugees. Orphan sisters Do Thi and Do Hang, from Haiphong in northern Vietnam, were among a boatload of 51 people who arrived in the summer of 1989. 'A marine police boat stopped us and, via loudspeakers, they said Hong Kong had closed the door,' says Do Thi. 'The deadline for the acceptance of refugees had passed, and we had to live in a camp. Every one of us wept at hearing this.' She was sent to a temporary camp on deserted Tai A Chau, then moved to an old ferry in Victoria harbour before being sent to a series of camps. That year, at a second Geneva conference, British foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe warned that Hong Kong was 'simply and absolutely unable to cope'. That December, prison guards dragged 51 people out of the Phoenix House Detention Centre and put them on a plane back to Vietnam. The shock tactic worked and refugee numbers started to fall. Arrivals in early 1990 were 87 per cent down on the previous year. Although some detainees volunteered to be repatriated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Hong Kong's 14 camps were still crowded, housing 64,300 people at their peak in October 1991. A policy of forced repatriation was adopted in 1991 in an attempt to clear the camps before the handover in 1997, as Beijing had insisted. This involved raids by riot police using teargas. In April 1994, more than 300 Vietnamese were injured during a raid at Whitehead Detention Centre in Ma On Shan. Do Thi, 46, says she remembers the choking teargas in Camp 8, where she slept in a triple-deck bunk. 'We wore homemade masks to cover our mouth and eyes. The guards wanted to force the Camp 7 people out to repatriate them because they were the ones rioting, sitting on their roofs and barring guards. We thought they'd take us as well.' So, they also resisted. 'The men pushed women outside the camp, hoping that the police wouldn't fire tear gas, but they still fired on us. We later returned to the camps. Men went on a hunger strike. I, too, ate little, returned to my bed and buried my head.' Do Thi had already spent five years behind barbed wire. She feared she'd be imprisoned if she returned to Vietnam. 'I felt hopeless,' she says. Three weeks later, Do Thi - like an estimated 500 other female asylum-seekers - married a local man. Leung Su-tai was introduced to her by a friend (aid worker Tam), and she was able to leave the camp and settle in the city. 'He looked very gentle, kind and handsome,' Do Thi says. 'I liked him.' But others who had arrived on Do Thi's boat weren't so lucky. Although some were able to go abroad, many were sent home. Since 1998, when the government ended its port of first asylum policy, all Vietnamese people arriving in Hong Kong illegally have been treated as illegal immigrants. Five years ago, Pillar Point was closed and ID cards were issued to the 1,417 remaining asylum seekers. These included 841 refugees, some of whom had spent more than 20 years in camps. By the time Pillar Point was closed, Hong Kong had spent $8.71 billion on the care of Vietnamese refugees, including an advance of $1.16 billion given to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Burdened with caring for millions of refugees around the world, the UN said it was unable to pay the debt. But lingering prejudice means some Vietnamese still hide their identities to avoid discrimination. 'People say I can't read and write, and no one talks to me at work,' says Do Thi, who is now a restaurant worker. She says she can find jobs only through Vietnamese friends. Sitting idly on a broken rattan chair under the Shamshuipo flyover, street sleeper Khang, who was classified as a refugee but rejected for resettlement abroad because of a criminal record, says he's repeatedly been refused jobs. Once, it was not only social welfare agencies who helped the Vietnamese in the camps, providing them with schooling, medication and recreation. Nowadays, a spokeswoman for the Social Welfare Department says there's no special service for them. Caritas Hong Kong social worker Wong Yin-mei says many of the former boatpeople still in Hong Kong are vulnerable. The men work mostly in transport or construction, and the women as cleaners or dishwashers. Pham Ngoc Tuan says he keeps his homelessness a secret from his ex-wife, who has remarried, their daughter, now 14, and his mother in Vietnam. 'If my mother knew, she would be so sad,' he says. 'I regret coming here. My life was wasted. I hear that there's a lot of work in Vietnam, but I have no money for an air ticket. And I don't know whether the Vietnamese government would allow me back.' A spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Hong Kong says it's not aware of any refugees wanting to return to Vietnam. Ng Wai-tung, a community organiser for the Society for Community Organisation, says the government should give all possible assistance to the Vietnamese homeless. 'They're the group who were living in despair for years in the camps. They have no chance of going to other countries and now society discriminates against them. With little knowledge of government services, they can't apply for social welfare.' Although some say the Vietnamese should not be given special treatment because they're now no longer refugees, Ng disagrees. 'The government should help them. The reason they accepted them in camps and gave them food and care was humanity. Now, these people have a need and the government isn't helping them. It's negligence - like a job half done.'