The ruling stems from the case of three people from Sierra Leone, Uganda and Senegal who sought asylum in the Netherlands in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively. Each of the applicants claimed they would face persecution in their African homelands because of their sexual orientation.
Homosexuality remains illegal in the three countries.
Sierra Leonean law punishes those found guilty of same-sex sexual acts with up to 10 years in prison, while those convicted under Senegal’s anti-sodomy law could face up to five years of incarceration. Gays and lesbians found guilty of same-sex sexual acts in Uganda could face up to life in prison.
Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati in 2009 sparked global outrage when he introduced a bill that would impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.
The Dutch Ministry of Immigration and Asylum in 2010 and 2011 denied the asylum seekers’ request based on grounds they had not demonstrated they have “a well-founded fear of persecution by reason of their membership of a particular social group.”
A court in The Hague in 2010 and 2011 upheld the Sierra Leonean and Ugandan petitioners request for asylum. The same tribunal in 2011 dismissed the Senegalese asylum seekers’ appeal.
The Dutch Ministry of Immigration and Asylum appealed the ruling that overturned its previous decision in the case of the Sierra Leonean and Ugandan petitioners to the Dutch Council of State. The advisory body asked the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to determine whether gays could be considered a “particular social group” and whether the criminalization of homosexuality is “an act of persecution.”
“It is common ground that a person’s sexual orientation is a characteristic so fundamental to his identity that he should not be forced to renounce it,” the European Court of Justice ruling reads.
“The criminalization of homosexual acts alone does not, in itself, constitute persecution,” it continues. “However, a term of imprisonment which sanctions homosexual acts and which is actually applied in the country of origin which adopted such legislation must be regarded as being a punishment which is disproportionate or discriminatory and thus constitutes an act of persecution.”
The ruling applies to all 28 EU member states, but it stipulates authorities in a particular country must determine whether an individual asylum seeker is facing persecution in their homeland. The Dutch government grants asylum based on sexual orientation on a case-by-case basis.
COC Nederland, a Dutch LGBT advocacy group, welcomed the European Court of Justice’s ruling.
“The current policy states that LGBT asylum seekers are to be expected to live in their country of origin with ‘a certain restraint’ when it comes to expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity,” the organization said. “This criterion is no longer valid in the light of this new European ruling. COC Netherlands has been advocating for such a policy for years.”
Livio Zilli of the International Commission of Jurists is among those who were critical of the decision.
“The court should have found that these laws, even when they have not recently been applied in practice are capable of giving rise to a well-founded fear or prosecution in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and who accordingly should be recognized as refugees when they apply for asylum,” Zilli said.