Romani activist Brigitta Balogh: Law Brexit and social justice

4 July 2018
Brigitta Balough holding dissertations outside Denmark university

Travellers' Times caught up with Romani Activist Brigitta Balogh. The 26 year old talks about her law school success, the ups and downs of activism and the impact of Brexit on EU Roma migrants. 

What are you currently up to? 

Right now I am actively looking for a job. I recently returned from Denmark, where I submitted and successfully defended my Masters thesis at the University of Copenhagen............says Brigitta Balogh.

My thesis was about the EU’s role in light of the infringement proceedings and further analysis on the National Roma Integration Strategies in the UK, France, Romania and Hungary. Interestingly, the chapter on the UK ended with stating that Brexit, puts the integration progress and the Roma population living in the UK in an insecure position.

Brigitta Balogh looking through a magnifying glass
Brigitta Balogh searching for opportunities

TT hear that you got accepted into three different law schools, which did you choose?

Back in 2015, after I graduated from the University of South Wales, I got accepted to the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) at the University of the West of England (UWE) but I decided to go to Denmark instead to familiarise myself with a different jurisdiction and to further develop knowledge that will later on lead me to excel in the legal profession.

After moving back to the UK, it was obvious that this time I was going to enrol. To my surprise, I got accepted to 3 law schools. It was difficult to decide on which university to attend as all three have excellent reputation but City of Law sent me an official acceptance letter with a brochure giving me plenty of information and their professionalism was so appealing that I decided to choose their course. With the BPTC I will study to become a barrister qualified in England and Wales.

How long have you been interested in pursuing a career in law and why?

"They intimidated her and as a result her insurance went up and she had to cover the costs of repair. I felt powerless and I wanted to help her".

I have been preparing myself for a legal career from a very young age as being a barrister appeared to me as a noble profession while growing up.

As a Romani Gypsy I often found myself in situations when I had to defend myself against vicious attacks, and that had a huge impact on me developing an outspoken personality demanding fairness for all. It seemed a natural choice to chose a profession where I can seek out justice for everyone.

I also think that without legal knowledge you are vulnerable. Especially, if you are from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.  On one occasion, my Mom had a minor car accident that was not her fault but when the police arrived to the scene, they told her that she either takes the blame or the case will be taken to court.

They intimidated her and as a result her insurance went up and she had to cover the costs of repair. I felt powerless and I wanted to help her. This  kind of abuse of power can be very common but what I came to understand is that without knowledge people can easily violate your rights.

I wanted to defend my mother just as much I want to defend my community. It is clear that I’m from a marginalised community and my existence have been used as a negative propaganda to explain poverty by politicians for decades. Such events like this only strengthen my determination to become a Human Rights Barrister.

What was it that drew you to human rights research?

"Personally I started to treasure my heritage in a greater debt and professionally I could make more accurate recommendations to the relevant bodies".

I realised in order to get the work done, to efficiently represent a cause, to change what needs to be changed, one must familiarise oneself with the current situation.  Data collection, situation analysis, mapping exercise and community centred research are some of the  effective ways, in my experience, to do so.

It started back in 2010,  when I participated in a Human Rights Summer School organised by the European Roma Rights Centre. I was fortunate enough to meet GRT activists from all over Europe and when I moved to Wales to start my legal studies, I approached Isaac Blake, director of the Romani Arts Company. Isaac is well-known for getting members of the community involved in projects, so when there was an opportunity to participate in the National Roma Integration Strategies report in the UK, I applied for the researcher position with his assistance.

While contributing to the report I noticed how important it is to have practical, as well as realistic, views on community’s needs. One thing led to another and I applied for a researcher work experience position during the summer of 2014 with Travelling Ahead.

I was carrying out a situation analysis on the access to rights for Roma children and young people in the South Wales area. I visited Czech Roma families as well as the Czech Roma youth group in Cardiff.

To cut a long story short, I think I got addicted a bit. Meeting members of the community, understanding their struggles was such an eye opening experience. It advanced both my personal and professional development. Personally I started to treasure my heritage in a greater debt and professionally I could make more accurate recommendations to the relevant bodies. The progress is slow and I can only encourage people in positions to conduct researches.

 

Brigitta Baloghwaiting for a red door to open
Brigitta Balogh waiting for doors to open

Have you faced any challenges since you have been in the UK that surprised you?

"You can imagine my shock when I realised that life for the GRT community is just as hard in the UK regardless the obvious socio-economic advancement of the country".

I moved to the UK when I was 19 years old because I thought that as a Hungarian Roma, studying law in the UK would enable me to represent my community in an even more powerful way. Bear in mind that the country where I am from is currently under infringement proceedings for segregating Roma pupils in education.

So you can imagine my shock when I realised that life for the GRT community is just as hard in the UK regardless the obvious socio-economic advancement of the country, not to mention the available financial resources and one would think that in a more tolerant society there is no space for racism against the GRT community.

Oh boy, was I wrong. However, upon my return to the UK, I had to face the sad reality that the situation had worsened. With the Equality Act 2010 in place, the UK government is under a duty to protect and promote equal rights. The Act recognises the protected characteristics and it is undeniable that Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers fall under these categories.

The systematic budget cuts on services have a knock-on effect on everything such as education, housing, health and employment. 

This means that there is a knowledge gap and a disconnect between people’s everyday experiences and the support and information needed in order to access their rights and shape policy as well as practices that improve outcomes and equality for our communities.

Not to mention Brexit that could have a huge impact on the EU Roma Migrant community as now we face further insecurities in terms of our residency and the end of EU funding to support 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 that they will not leave us behind. 

On a personal note, my challenges are involving meeting people who proclaim that they are interested in my career advancement and what I professionally stand for. The status quo remains that the places around the policy shaping table on Gypsy Roma and Traveller situation for members of the community  regardless of education or experience is almost invisible, therefore extremely hard to find. Our voices need to be heard.

Not only when we feed into debates, panel discussions and researches on a voluntary basis (and most of the time these inputs are left unrecognised) but also when we put ourselves forward and nothing happens as a result.

What inspires you to be so persistent?

"On my first day at school my mother told me that I am a Gypsy, therefore I will have to study twice as hard. That advice stuck with me for life".

According to the Cambridge dictionary, 'persistent' means continuing to do something in a determined way even when facing difficulties. Thinking about it makes me realise that I am persistent because this is the only way I know how to be. As much as I am determined, I constantly face challenges while advocating for the GRT community or promoting myself to make progress in my career. This is very much linked together.

I am dedicated to come up with a game changing plan. As much as I think about it, as much as I talk about it, it is getting more and more grotesque that the everyday injustice and racism still very much present is such modern societies.  

So I put myself forward, constantly looking for ways to challenge the current situation, address the issues in a professional manner and use my educational background  to appear more of a desirable asset to future employers.But it is not always easy. Especially when you realise that people in position are actually okay with the slow progress, they don’t want to change things effectively.

Sometimes I personally struggle and doubt myself, whether I can do this. But if I have managed to overcome such obstacles and gotten this far I only hope that I have what it takes to succeed. And I am a firm believer that the invested energy will eventually pay itself off.

What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

"Why is the government hesitant to openly discuss the future of EU Roma Migrants? What is going to happen after Brexit?".

I would like to continue my advocacy work, I would like to participate in policy shaping. I would like to work alongside the government and ask the questions that need to be asked. For instance, what about the budget cuts with the Travelling Education services? Why there is no centralised power governing the situation? Why would the government want local authorities to decide over the GRT communities?

Why is the government hesitant to openly discuss the future of EU Roma Migrants? What is going to happen after Brexit? Also, I would like to see effective measures in place. I am always on a mission to find people who can tell me who should I contact to in order to actually work on those measures to happen. And of course, I would like to complete the Bar course and become a human rights barrister.

 

Two girls with Romani language t-shirts
Brigitta Balogh and Lisa Smith wearing 'Roma Rights Defenders' t-shirts.

Do you have any advice for other Roma and Travellers interested in pursuing a career in Law?

"I am sure that I am not the only one who has ever received misleading promises from public servants whether in a room full or being approached during an event".

First of all, prepare yourselves. The legal field is very competitive, whether you are Roma or not. Try to gain a variety of experiences, make sure that you stand on as many feet as possible in order to appear desirable for future employers. Toughen up because they might tell you that your experience is not enough for an entry-level job.

This is a very concerning issue for our generation, when law firms, chambers and organisations require 3-5 years work experience for an entry-level position. And most importantly, if you decide to work on Gypsy Roma Traveller related matters you need to know that there will be people who will hand you their business cards, seemingly willing to help you in your career advancement but nothing will actually happen.

I am sure that I am not the only one who has ever received misleading promises from public servants whether in a room full or being approached during an event. They show up, acknowledge the difficulties and pose with a community member for social media. This is not acceptable. If it would be, the Gypsy Roma Traveller community could live happily ever after.

Therefore, I would like to call out to people from the community to come forward and share your similar experiences to raise this phenomena as we are stronger when united together. It is not acceptable that public servants make false or misleading promises to support us and what we stand for. If they did,  they would not only help in our career development but would also empower our communities.

It is unacceptable that we need to chase these people and one way or another they let us down. We need to put an end to this hypocrisy. People who are willing to work in Gypsy Roma Traveller related matters are taking on advocacy work that needs to be backed up and supported.

While doing so, we positively influence the views of the general public as well as our communities Amongst this generation there are Gypsy Roma Traveller members who have both the lived experience as well as the professional knowledge to take on representative roles. However, these roles do not just grow on trees. We have to put ourselves out there, advocate for ourselves right now.

So aspiring lawyers to be, my advice to is to work hard, contact organisations who are willing to help you regardless, and be persistent.

Congratulations from Travellers' Times Brigitta on being accepted into law school to complete your Bar Professional Training Course. We look forward to hearing more from you in the future. 

Main photo: © Ildiko Szilagyi Brigitta Balogh outside the  University of Copenhagen Faculty of Law holding her Masters thesis.