Despite social marginalisation, some members of the region's Roma community have fought for an equal position in society.
By Ana Lovaković for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 15/04/13
The region's Roma population lives in poverty. [AFP]
International Roma Day marked the renewal of European and international institutions' call for the integration of Roma communities in the region.
On April 8th, the EU and its member states underlined that it will not accept the economic and social marginalisation of the continent's largest minority.
"Improving the situation for Roma people is one of the biggest challenges we face in Europe. Making a real difference to their daily lives requires long-term commitments, adequate resources, and concerted action at local, regional, national and European level," the Union said in a statement.
"The EU has laid down a strong framework for action and Member States have drawn up national strategies for Roma inclusion. This is a good first step. The key is now to make sure these policies are implemented on the ground."
One of the largest ethnic minority groups in Europe, numbering 10 million to 12 million, Roma are also arguably the most discriminated against. Most live in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans in abject poverty; levels of education and literacy are low, unemployment rates are exceptionally high. Many are officially stateless. Without identification documents they are unable to access social programmes and benefits.
Among those working to improve the minority position is Shpresa Agushi, a Roma female activist in Kosovo. For over a decade, the mother of three children has become a leading advocate for Roma.
"It's urgent to have effective education, gender equality and employment policies for a successful impact in the Roma's position," said Agushi.
Although there is no lack of legal support endorsement for minorities and women in the region's laws, there is a lack of appropriate execution of those laws, she said.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Roma are the largest ethnic minority in the country. Data from the BiH Ministry of Civil Affairs shows the number of Roma in the country around 40,000, but NGOs said the number is more than double that.
Hedina Sijerčić, the national co-ordinator for Roma people in BiH, said the fact is that many Roma do not want to define themselves as Roma, but as members of the majority nation.
"That is the reason why is not possible to say how many Roma we have," Sijerčić told SETimes.
Despite their marginalisation, however, many Roma in the region are dedicated to succeed.
Dragana Seferovic, 23, made her way through life to become a ballet dancer, teacher and student. Dragana lives in Sarajevo where she is student at the Faculty of Sport and Physical Education and teaching ballet classes in National Theatre in Zenica.
"I am proud of what I am and happy to be able to show other Roma kids how everything is possible. They should newer give up on their dreams," Seferovic told SETimes.
She was abandoned by her parents as a child, and ended up at the Home for Abandoned Children in Bjelave. She eventually was moved to the SOS Children's Village, an NGO in Sarajevo that houses and takes care of abandoned children, children's whose parents are not able to take care of them for medical, financial, or other reasons.
"In Bosnia I understood what means to be Roma," Seferovic said, adding that it is difficult for Roma to battle the prejudice and stigma in Bosnian society.
"I was lucky to have support from different organisations and programmes for Roma people, specially from Education Builds BiH, whose scholarship I have had for six years. They helped me to finish two high schools, and now I am on third year of faculty."
In Turkey, where the Roma population is about 5 million, the level of education is poor. Roughly 7 percent of Roma children graduate from high school or university, while the diversification of the employment opportunities are very limited as well.
But, Elmas Kara Arus is one Roma citizen who has broken this circle by providing her peers with the possibility of another world.
Despite the traditional lifestyle of her community, she went to high school, and graduated from the media department of Thrace University, and then from Istanbul University.
Arus is a renowned documentary filmmaker and the head of Istanbul-based Zero Discrimination Association, which advocates for Roma rights in Turkish society.
"I spent my childhood in a semi-nomadic family in northern city of Amasya. When I was 7, we came to Istanbul. I was one of the unique girls among my peers to go primary school, through the efforts of my father," Arus told SETimes.
In Romania, the Roma population is 3.2 percent, the second-largest ethnic minority in the country after Hungarians.
Florin Dumitrache, a 19-year-old Roma student at medical college, comes from the village about 50 kilometres southeast of Bucharest.
"I have never neglected school because I knew I had a road to follow. I wanted to be different from the rest of the community, but at the same time be a positive example for them," he told SETimes.
Florin has been part of a project called Roma Professionals in Medicine, which is funded by the NGO ActiveWatch.
Prejudice about his ethnic roots is still out there, he said. "But most of the people I meet accept me for what I am," Florin said.
Correspondents Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul, Katica Djurovic in Belgrade, Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest, Biljana Lajmanovska in Skopje and Safet Kabasaj in Pristina contributed to this report.
What can regional governments do to foster Roma inclusion? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.