The European Commission has affirmed that persecution on grounds of sexual orientation is a legitimate justification for an asylum claim.

The question was prompted by an initial rejection in Cyprus of a claim by a gay Iranian asylum seeker, a rejection which was later overturned and the claim granted.

The Commission has confirmed that there is “an obligation on Member States to grant refugee status to persons who…. are found to have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of membership of a particular social group, including a group based on a common characteristic of sexual orientation.”

The Commission was responding to a question from MEPs.

Sarah Ludford, who is Liberal Democrat European justice & human rights spokeswoman, said:

“I strongly welcome this robust statement by the Commission on the responsibility of Member States to uphold their international commitments to refugees and recognise persecution on all legitimate grounds including sexual orientation.

“Such persecution is very much a reality for gay and lesbian people from countries such as Iran.

“Iranians Mehdi Kazemi and Mr Bagherian were both eventually granted residence in the UK and Cyprus respectively but in both cases it was a struggle requiring a lot of lobbying.

“I hope that EU states will now heed the Commission and deal with future cases quickly and efficiently so that those who’ve been persecuted on the grounds of their sexuality can be spared further distress.”

Gay activists in the UK have started a petition on the Downing St website calling on the Prime Minister “to stop deporting gays and lesbians to countries where they may be imprisoned, tortured or executed because of their sexuality.”

Click here fore more details.

Last week it was reported that the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) was to deport a man who claims he is gay back to Iraq.

His original application for asylum in 2001 did not mention his homosexuality.

Gay rights groups condemned the decision to deport the man, and the UKBA’s assertion that he should be safe if he is “private” about his sexuality.

“Even if your client’s homosexuality were to be established it is viewed that it would be possible for your client to conduct such relationships in private on his return to Iraq,” the agency said in a letter to the man’s lawyers.

“This would allow your client to express his sexuality, albeit in a more limited way than he could do elsewhere.”

Iraqi LGBT says that more than 430 gay men have been murdered in Iraq since 2003.

In November a leading gay activist in Iraq was assassinated. 27-year-old Bashar was one of the organisers of safe houses for gay men in Baghdad and was co-ordinator of Iraqi LGBT in the city.

A UN report in 2007 highlighted attacks on gays by militants and religious courts, supervised by clerics, where homosexuals allegedly would be ‘tried,’ ‘sentenced’ to death and then executed.