Three men from Sierra Leone, Uganda and Senegal sought refugee status in the Netherlands, arguing that they had a "well-founded fear" of being persecuted because of their sexual orientation.
Initially the application was denied as the Dutch authorities ruled that homosexuals could "exercise restraint" to avoid persecution. The Dutch Council of State, an advisory body to the government that also handles judicial appeals, took the matter to the European Court of Justice, which is the highest body dealing with EU law.
On Thursday, the European Court of Justice rejected the Dutch ruling.
The court ruled that it was not reasonable to expect people to conceal their sexuality in their countries of origin in order to avoid persecution. "A person's sexual orientation is a characteristic so fundamental to his identity that he should not be forced to renounce it," the Luxembourg-based court ruled on Thursday.
The court ruled that though laws against homosexual men and women effectively turned them into a "separate group" in their respective societies, this alone did not count as persecution.
"The acts of persecution must be sufficiently serious by their nature of repetition as to constitute a severe violation of basic human rights," the judges said.
The three joint cases have been referred back to the Dutch authorities for a final verdict.
Homosexuality is a crime in 38 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the rights organization Amnesty International.
Gay men and lesbians in sub-Saharan Africa routinely face discrimination and sometimes violence. The death penalty has been floated as an option for punishment in Uganda and other nations.
Thursday's ruling may also have implications for asylum requests from homosexual men and women who are persecuted in countries outside of Africa, for example in Russia.
rg/mkg (dpa, epd, AFP)