Refugees facing imprisonment in their home country because they are gay may have grounds to be granted asylum in the European Union, the bloc's top court has ruled.
The existence of laws imprisoning homosexuals "may constitute an act of persecution per se" if they are routinely enforced, the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice ruled.
A homosexual cannot be expected to conceal his sexual orientation in his home country to avoid persecution, since it would amount to renouncing a "characteristic fundamental to a person's identity," the court added.
International treaties say people must prove they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution for reasons of race, religion, ethnicity or political opinion if they are to obtain asylum.
The European court ruled on the cases of three people from Sierra Leone, Uganda and Senegal seeking asylum in the Netherlands.
Worldwide, more than 70 countries have laws that are used to criminalise people on the basis of sexual orientation, according to the International Commission of Jurists. The laws typically ban either certain types of sexual activity or contain a blanket ban on intimacy and sexual activity between members of the same sex.
Amnesty International says homosexuality is "increasingly criminalised across Africa," with 36 nations there having laws against same-sex conduct. In addition, many predominantly Muslim nations like Iran, Kuwait or Afghanistan outlaw homosexuality.
In some nations, however, the laws are rarely enforced. The court said it will be up to Europe's national authorities to determine whether the situation in an applicant's home country amounts to persecution.
Some EU member states already accept sexual orientation as a reason for granting asylum under certain circumstances, but the ECJ's ruling clarifies that policy and makes it binding for all 28 EU nations.
It is still remains unclear how national authorities should check a person's claim of being homosexual. The European Court of Justice isn't expected to rule on that issue before next year.