Van Ngoc Ta, MA SID’12 | 2020 Recipient of the Florence G. Heller Alumni Award

Van Ngoc Ta
Van Ngoc Ta, MA SID'12

Van Ngoc Ta, MA SID’12 is one of 15 alumni to receive a 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Award. He is chief lawyer at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, working to end modern-day slavery and human trafficking in Vietnam. Over the last 15 years, he has rescued nearly 1,000 victims of sex trafficking, sexual abuse, labor exploitation and many other forms of slavery, and sent 135 traffickers to jail. He has also held workshops and training sessions across Vietnam for thousands of police officers, prosecutors and judges. His advocacy work has led to changes in Vietnamese policies, laws and practices that provide better prevention and protection for human trafficking victims. His Heller classmate and friend, Win Ko Ko MA SID’11, nominated Van for this award and interviewed him about his career at Blue Dragon.

The video below, produced by Reuters Thompson Foundation, profiles his work as part of a series titled "Taking on the Traffickers."

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Interview with Van Ngoc Ta, MA SID'12

Why have you dedicated your career to ending modern-day slavery and human trafficking?

Freedom is precious, especially physical freedom. I firmly believe nobody should ever have to live in slavery. I have witnessed with my own eyes the pain human trafficking causes, while working with parents who have spent years desperately looking for their missing children. But I have also seen the happiest tears when they’ve been reunited. Those reunions are what inspires me every day to keep working to bring more victims of human trafficking home.

I’ll always remember the first child I freed from slavery. His name is Ngoc and he was 13 when I rescued him. At that time, I was a law student, wondering what to do with my life, which career path to take. That experience of bringing freedom to a trafficked child ended up answering those questions and set the course of my career and my life.

The latest estimates suggest that 40 million people around the world are currently living in slavery. I believe that helping people escape from slavery is the most important thing I’ll ever do. The rescue of a trafficked person does not only give freedom back to the survivor, it is also a critical condition to bring the traffickers to justice. Prosecution serves two functions: the trafficker is prevented from harming anyone else, and their imprisonment can deter potential traffickers from committing this crime.

Rescue and prosecution are essential pillars of my work, but they are not the only ones. From what I learn in the field, I advocate for systemic change in Vietnamese law. My work with victims of trafficking allows me to identify loopholes and shortcomings in the legal system and provides me with the evidence to push for change. So far, this advocacy work has resulted in two laws being revised, and major shifts in public dialogue on issues such as child labor and child sexual abuse. I have been able to train hundreds of police officers and government officials, using a publication that I took a leading role in writing for Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, where I’ve worked for the past 13 years.

I wish I never had to witness another reunion after such an ordeal ever again, because that would mean we’ve ended trafficking altogether. And that’s exactly what I strive for: eradicating modern-day slavery, so that no family must ever suffer the devastation it causes. 

What have you been working on recently, and why does it inspire you?

I have worked in this field for nearly 15 years, but my passion and dedication remain as strong as the first day. What has changed, however, are my skills and understanding of Vietnam’s legal system, and my ability to influence both Vietnamese society and the law that governs it. Our litigation work at Blue Dragon has resulted in the revision and amendment of several laws to better protect victims of crime in this country. Let me share with you a story.

In late 2013, I wanted to help a girl who was a victim of sexual abuse. She was raped by a neighbor and her father reported this to the police, but they refused to prosecute the man due to insufficient evidence. Torn by desperation, her father ended up taking his own life, in an attempt to get the attention of the public on his daughter’s situation. I applied repeatedly to be this girl’s lawyer, but the police kept rejecting my application. In Vietnam, the lawyers of victims can only join a case if the police start a criminal investigation process.

To this day, the offender is still at large and hasn’t been prosecuted. The girl has endured great suffering due to both the social stigma she’s had to face and the painful loss of her father. Justice was never served for her.

The tragic case helped me truly understand the importance of having legal representation for victims of crime. When the Criminal Procedure Code went into effect in 2015, I was the first lawyer in Vietnam to raise concerns about lack of regulations regarding the participation of lawyers for the victims in the code. 

I initiated a process of dialogue, research, and legal review with Vietnam’s National Assembly, the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme Court and Vietnam Lawyers Association. Bringing together government officials and police officers into formal discussions, we worked with the Ministry of Public Security to develop and issue Circular 46, which went into effect December 2019. 

Now, any person in Vietnam who finds themselves the victim of a crime is assured of the right to have a legal representative to defend them. Addressing a major shortcoming in the legal system, Circular 46 is the result of my long experience advocating for the rights of the most vulnerable groups in society: victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse.

I want slavery to become history. I have created a model that not only includes protection, prevention, prosecution, and partnership but also dedicated persons to fight human traffickers and address the root causes of this crime. That model has been very successful in Vietnam and, by implementing it, my team at Blue Dragon and I have become pioneers in fighting human trafficking and rescuing victims from their captors. 

Tell me the story of your proudest career accomplishment.

I have received numerous awards for my efforts including the TIP Hero award from the U.S. State Department in 2014 and the inaugural Trust Women Anti Trafficking Hero Award by Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2015, Asia 21 Young Leaders in 2019 and numerous recognitions from Vietnamese government.

However, my proudest accomplishment was fostering a law reform to protect boys and men in Vietnam from sexual abuse by covering the loopholes in the law. In 2012, I was defending several boys who had been sexually abused by pedophiles. I alerted the government of the issue but there was little they could do, as the law did not cover male sexual abuse. Because the law at the time didn’t recognize boys as victims of rape and sexual abuse, pedophiles who had abused boys could not be prosecuted for this crime. 

Determined to fix this, I started working with the Police Academy, the National Assembly, and journalists to advocate for change. After three years, the government recognized the existing obstacles in the law, and changed the Penal Code to make sure male victims of sexual abuse are afforded the same protection as female victims. It was a minor change in the Penal Code, but it made an immense difference in the protection of boys and men who are victims of sexual abuse in Vietnam. 

Has your work been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and the related economic recession we're experiencing?  

During the coronavirus pandemic, we tried to keep operating as usual. However, when travel restrictions forced us to suspend rescue operations earlier this year, I was communicating with many victims in slavery situations. All of them were trapped and waiting for our help. Knowing we could not reach them was a painful realization, but it was out of our hands.

The hardest part was not being able to tell the girls and women who were calling for help. I knew they understood the situation, that we likely would not be able to reach them due to travel bans, but I could not tell them that we had suspended operations. Never. I needed to maintain hope.

We also faced funding difficulties, as many of our donors were also affected by the pandemic. Our hands were tied in many fronts, but we strived to provide adequate services for those who needed them, and despite the difficulties we were still able to support the victims calling for help, and even managed to carry out several rescues. 

How did you come to study at the Heller School, and what are some of your fondest memories of your Heller days?

In 2009, after five years of working for a small NGO in Vietnam, I started realizing the limitations of my capacity in addressing social problems in Vietnam. I decided I wanted to improve my knowledge and learn much more about development, so I could affect positive change in my country.

Opportunities to network and learn from people experienced in this field in Vietnam were extremely limited. In my search for a suitable program, I met Neal Bermas, PhD’81, who introduced me to the SID program at Heller. Mr. Neal Bermas even provided partial financial assistance for my study. Without his introduction and generosity, my trip to Heller would not be possible.

The story that inspired me most is that of the founder of the school, Louis Brandeis, who stood for the rights of individuals, believed in the pursuit of knowledge, and saw its transmission from generation to generation as a sacred trust. These values, along with the conviction that Heller was a place where I could learn from leading professors and experts in the field and where I would be able to pursue my dreams, made me decide to apply.

To this day, I still tell friends, family, and colleagues about all the valuable lessons I learnt at Heller. The fondest memory of my student period at Heller, however, didn’t happen in a classroom. It was during the culture night, when I saw everyone in their traditional costumes. We enjoyed food from all over the world, people sang and danced. That night really helped me understand my friends and their cultures. I miss that moment very much.

At Heller, staff and professors really care for you. Right after I arrived, I needed to buy a laptop to study, but I didn’t know where I could get one. I went to see Ravi Lakshmikanthan at his office. He helped me to order one from Amazon with a student discount. That was the first time I heard of that website.

Professor Simon once told me that Heller cared for us, so that we as development professionals will be able to care for the world. Caring for the world and every single person in it is the most important lesson I learned from my time at Heller.

What advice do you have for Heller students today?

I would tell them to enjoy their student life because it will be an unforgettable time in their lives. Make friends and build relationships with your peers. You never know how much impact that relationship will have in the future. Sometimes, that relationship might become essential, and it can change someone’s life. For example, my Burmese friend Win Ko Ko and I kept in touch for nearly 10 years. One day, I called him to ask for his help to support 5 Vietnamese girls who were trafficked in his country, Myanmar. With his assistance, we were able to rescue them and today all five are back in Vietnam safe and sound.

About the 2020 Florence G. Heller Alumni Awards

To honor our 60th anniversary, the community chose to honor 15 awardees for living a life that exemplifies the mission and vision of the Heller School and honors the legacy of our namesake, Florence G. Heller. Award recipients have produced positive and impactful change through the rigor, creativity, and innovation of their work. Additional selection criteria included the national, global, local impact of accomplishments, identification with the Brandeis community, and/or sustained impact and leadership over time.