Gay and lesbian asylum-seekers can be safely deported to Iran as long as they live their lives "discreetly", the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, has claimed.
In a letter to a Liberal Democrat peer, seen by The Independent, Ms Smith said there was no "real risk" of gay men and lesbians being discovered by the Iranian authorities or "adverse action" being taken against those who were "discreet" about their behaviour.
Her comments were condemned by human rights campaigners. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, described the notion of gays escaping persecution by being discreet as nonsense. He said: "You only have to listen to people who were terrorised by the Metropolitan Police in the 1950s and 1960s to know that telling gay people to live discreetly is quixotic."
Ms Smith gave her verdict after MPs and peers called on the Government to change its immigration policy and immediately end the deportation of failed asylum-seekers who fear persecution in Iran.
Their call for a moratorium on asylum removals was a response to the plight of Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian teenager facing execution if he returns to Iran, whose case was taken up by The Independent. They said the case of Mr Kazemi, who has since been granted asylum, showed that a change of policy was the "only moral course" for the Government.
But in her letter to Lord Roberts of Llandudno, Ms Smith rejected a call for an immediate halt to the deportation of gay and lesbian asylum seekers. "We recognise that the conditions for gay and lesbian people in Iran – and many other countries – are such that some individuals are able to demonstrate a need for international protection," she wrote. "We do not, however, accept that we should make the presumption that each and every asylum-seeker who presents themselves as being of a particular nationality or sexuality, regardless of their particular circumstances, should automatically be ... allowed to remain in the UK.
She added: "With particular regard to Iran, current case law handed down by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal concludes that the evidence does not show a real risk of discovery of, or adverse action against gay and lesbian people who are discreet about their sexual orientation."
Gay campaign groups estimate that 4,000 Iranians have been executed because of their sexuality since the late 1970s. Ms Smith suggests it is far fewer.
Lord Roberts, who has gathered support from more than 20 other peers and MPs, said: "It is not good enough for the Government to say that people will be safe from punishment if they behave discretely. The only ethical course of action is to declare a moratorium on deportations to Iran for all who fear execution."
Mehdi Kazemi moved to Britain in 2005 to study English in Brighton. In April 2006 his former boyfriend was executed after naming Mr Kazemi as his partner during interrogation.