Brigitta Balogh: Woman set to become Britain's first Roma barrister on Brexit insecurity and racism

'We are an underrepresented, marginalised community. The implementation of the law and policy is sometimes not in our favour,' says law graduate

Maya Oppenheim
Women's Correspondent
Thursday 20 September 2018 20:22 BST
The Hungary-born student has long been advocating for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities
The Hungary-born student has long been advocating for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities

It is said the discrimination and prejudice experienced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community in Britain is the last acceptable form of racism. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has previously found that discrimination by the public, the police and other authorities is “common across Britain” and the group is “locked out” by society.

All of the above has emboldened Brigitta Balogh to try and become the first Roma to qualify as a barrister in England and Wales. The 26-year-old law graduate has not only witnessed discrimination towards the community first-hand but has also battled against racism herself.

The Hungary-born student - who has long been advocating for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities - completed her undergraduate degree at the University of South Wales and has now been accepted to complete the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) at City University in London.

“Racism against the GRT community in Britain is very much present. It would be hard to deny it,” she told The Independent. “The racism is based on bad media coverage and the TV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. If you were to change the word ‘gypsy’ or ‘traveller’ with any other community, the media would not get away with it.”

“I heard someone say we must condemn antigypsyism as we condemn antisemitism. Despite all the injustice the community has suffered in the last 500 years, some of the general public’s opinion is that antigypsyism is not racism. Antigypsyism is a term that should be frequently used.”

Ms Balogh said she was tasked with penning a briefing report on "negotiated stopping" – which provides an alternative to the traditional approach to unauthorised encampment management - that was circulated around parliament for a debate on the GRT community last October.

"There were so many racist uninformed comments by MPs,” she said. “It is frustrating the GRT community are still facing so many issues. Other minorities have done well for themselves but we are still struggling with primary issues.”

She said she was concerned about the impact leaving the European Union could have on the GRT community in the UK – arguing it would bring greater insecurity.

“The problem with Brexit is we do not have information regarding what is going to happen - the government is hesitant to discuss the future of Roma migrants. Brexit brings us further insecurity in terms of residency and the end of European funding for our integration.

“When the UK agreed to introduce measures to effectively integrate the Roma community, it did so as an EU member state. I hope they do not leave us behind when we Brexit.”

The main areas Ms Balogh - who has been granted government funding for her course but raised money for her registration fee via a GoFundMe page - hopes to address as a barrister are housing, healthcare, education, and employment.

“We are an underrepresented, marginalised community. The implementation of the law and policy is sometimes not in our favour,” she said. “I would like to draw attention to the latest situation that councils have been granted high court injunction orders against unauthorised encampments."

“The injunction effectively is a blanket ban that excludes named individuals or ‘persons unknown’ from encamping in different pieces of land, such as parks, commons and other open spaces as well as industrial land. Human rights legislation requires that government seeks to facilitate traditional ways of life - this includes nomadic traditions of Gypsy, Roma and Travellers.

"It appears to me that this injunction order serves as a legal tool for councils to force the Gypsies and Travellers to settle, repeating what happened in the past centuries all over Europe. This situation requires immediate attention.”

Ms Balogh also raised alarm bells about the bullying GRT children are subject to in British schools.

“Besides GRT children being bullied, traveller education services have been experiencing budget cuts, which puts them in the difficult situation of how to support the community with their needs,” she said. “We need to make sure there is access to quality education. People in the GRT community fight against stereotypes that they do not want to study.”

Earlier in the month, experts told the Women and Equalities Committee that bullying, racism and feeling left out of the curriculum are major factors in low school attendance rates among GRT children.

Professor Kalwant Bhopal, from the Centre for Research in Race and Education, at Birmingham University, said traveller education services had been "drastically reduced" – having an impact on attendance.

“Gypsy and Traveller families and indeed children, experience huge amounts of racism and discrimination in schools, not just from their peers but indeed from their teachers as well,” she said.

"Quite often when traveller children complain about racism to their teachers, it's not seen as racism because they're white groups - and so I think we need clearer guidelines on how this group is treated and the discourse and the narrative around how Gypsies and travellers are treated."

Turning her attention towards healthcare and employment, Ms Balogh said it was imperative people living “in encampments or on roadsides” had proper access to healthcare. “In employment, we need to eliminate any form of discrimination against the GRT community,” she added.

Ms Balogh – who noted she was also keen to advocate for other communities as a barrister – said she hoped to inspire women from her own community and other communities to stand up for what they believe in. She also recommended the formulation of a Romani and Travellers women’s group as part of parliament.

Ms Balogh said she herself has been on the receiving end of racism since launching her crowdfunding campaign.

“I have been publically called out," she said. "An anonymous commenter called me a ‘chancer’ and said the world does not owe me anything. In my interpretation, I beg to differ due to the injustice we have been going through for centuries. Is it not racist to call me out and call me a chancer?”

She said one of her earliest memories of racism dates back to being in Hungary as a young child.

“When I was young I did not understand what the general public thought of gypsies. I remember the first time I was called out as a ‘gypsy’ by one of my classmates. I did not know what was going on but I knew I was supposed to feel ashamed and learn my place in society. Since then, I still haven’t managed to learn my place. If there is a wall in front of me I try to break through it”.

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