As part of ongoing efforts to tackle the problem, the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has for the past three years been implementing the project "Roma, use your ballot wisely!" jointly with the European Commission.
This wide-ranging initiative aims to increase the political participation of Roma communities across South-Eastern Europe, not only by addressing issues directly connected to elections, but by improving a whole range of basic conditions that majority populations take for granted.
"The problems that Roma communities face are so great that, unless we tackle the root causes of marginalization, we cannot hope to significantly increase Roma participation at the ballot box, let alone in the political process as a whole," explains ODIHR Director Ambassador Christian Strohal.
"We need to resolve the humanitarian crisis surrounding Roma refugees and internally displaced persons, especially in Kosovo, we need to improve access to basic social services, and we need to fight the discrimination that continues to keep Roma from working in state institutions."
In order to build trust between Roma communities and local authorities, the ODIHR has engaged Roma in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia (including Kosovo), and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as local contact points to work with local authorities on issues such as civil registration, voter education and registration, and lobbying government bodies.
One of the major obstacles to greater Roma political participation is lack of official documentation. Many Roma have no identity cards, either because their births or marriages were never registered with the state authorities, or, in the case of many Roma displaced during the recent conflicts in the Balkans, because their documents are not recognized by the state in which they now live.
"Everyone has a different story," explains Sarita Jasarova from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. "I have been working on the case of a woman originally from Kosovo who now lives here with her husband, who has Macedonian citizenship. Their marriage is not recognized by the state and so she cannot claim legal residence here. She had a birth certificate from Kosovo but never an identity card, which is what she needs to make her marriage official."
In Bosnia, many Kosovar Roma have old identity documents that the state no longer recognizes as valid. To obtain a Bosnian passport, they require a birth certificate issued within the last six months.
Resolving such cases can be a long, bureaucratic and often expensive process that may take up to two years. In addition to lacking the necessary funds, many Roma are afraid to return to Kosovo to obtain the documents that they need in order to claim their social and political rights.
Osman Balic, one of the ODIHR's local contact points, has been working closely with the municipality of Nis, Serbia, on civil registration for Roma who are originally from Kosovo.
The lack of civil registration is a problem that particularly affects Roma women in Nis, nearly half of whom lack birth certificates and citizenship documents. For the last eighteen months, the ODIHR, in co-operation with the OSCE Mission in Serbia, has enabled the municipality to employ three young Roma women to work specifically on this issue.
"These three women are the only Roma working for the municipality, and they have the language skills and understanding of the Roma community necessary to work in this complex area," says Balic.
"They also fulfil all the requirements to become regular full-time state employees. It is vital that at the close of the ODIHR's project they be kept on as employees in their own right. This is not only because they have shown that they are dedicated to this work, but because the state needs to demonstrate that it is willing to take on Roma as mainstream employees."
Breaking the cycle
Problems related to civil registration are perpetuated when children are born to parents with no valid documents. In the seven years since the war in Kosovo, many Roma births have gone unregistered for this reason.
In addition to exclusion from education and social services, this can have devastating consequences in individual cases. Two Roma children from the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are currently unable to go abroad for essential medical treatment because they do not have the correct documentation - something that the ODIHR's local contact points are trying to resolve.
There are success stories, however: many of the contact points across the region have been able also to work with NGOs, local authorities and schools to successfully register newly born babies and to register older children and enrol them in schools.
They have also been resolving adult registration issues, often on a case-by-case basis, including registration on the electoral roll. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, citizens can check online whether their name appears on the electoral roll simply by entering their identity card number. The ODIHR's contact points have been using this system to help hundreds of Roma voters check their eligibility to vote. They have also trained groups of young, first-time voters to use the system themselves.
Creating community leaders
The project places a particular emphasis on increasing the political participation of women and young people. The ODIHR has been reinforcing this by employing women and young people as some of its contact points.
"As well as carrying out specific activities, we see this project as a way of building the leadership skills and experience of our contact points so that they can continue to work on behalf of their own communities after the completion of the project," says Nicolae Gheorghe of the ODIHR's Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues.
"The contact points also represent the beginnings of a regional network of Roma activists in South-Eastern Europe, which can help to improve communication between Roma who live in different countries but face the same problems."