Several gay men have fled Russia after officials said that they would arrest people “of non-traditional sexual orientation” who had had children through surrogacy. The announcement formed the authorities’ latest attack on the LGBT community.

Surrogacy is legal in Russia but has increasingly been attacked by conservative lawmakers and the Orthodox church. Police arrested a number of top fertility doctors this year and have accused them of “child trafficking” in an ongoing case.

State media recently quoted an unnamed official saying that investigators would widen their investigation into surrogacy to include single fathers, whom the official assumed would be gay.

“They are planning to arrest more suspects, including single Russian men who used surrogate mothers to have babies,” the official said, claiming it was illegal for gay men to have children in this way.

Alexander* (name has been changed), a single parent who fled the country shortly after reading that statement, said he knew there was no such law in Russia but could not risk his six-month-old son being taken away from him.

The 40-year-old said prosecutors had not contacted him directly but that a source in a doctors’ clinic warned him earlier that investigators had seen his son’s medical records and it looked as if he “was going to have problems”.

He said that when he read that investigators were planning to target single men who had used surrogates: “I thought I’d lost my grip on reality. I thought I wasn’t reading the article properly.”

Alexander said he had no plans to return to Russia immediately. “Of course I would like to come home, take my child back to a place he knows, where his grandma and grandpa are nearby.” But he saw little hope of investigators using their “common sense” and changing tack.

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Konstantin Svitnev, a Russian lawyer, who works in reproductive rights, said he knew of several other single fathers who had left Russia since the comments. “For these people it’s a disaster. They have a job, house, business, they’ve made their lives in Russia. And now, because they’ve decided to become parents in this country, they have had to take their children, leave everything behind and run into the unknown.”

Svitnev himself was a suspect in the “child trafficking” investigation begun when a baby born to a surrogate mother died of sudden infant death syndrome in January. The baby was being looked after by nannies while his foreign parents were dealing with paperwork to take him home.

The lawyer said investigators had turned their attention to single fathers to distract from the fact that they had found “absolutely nothing, no guilt, no basis for a charge” in the original case.

Russia has introduced a raft of anti-LGBT legislation in recent years. State media often present the idea of gay rights as a western import that poses an existential threat to Russia and portray the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as a defender of “traditional values”.

A change to the constitution this summer defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, setting back hopes for marriage equality for at least a generation.

Meanwhile parliament is considering a law that would not only bar transgender people from changing their sex on birth certificates, but require those who have already transitioned to change back their status.

Exact numbers for children born to surrogate mothers in Russia are not available but experts estimate there are about 3,500 surrogate pregnancies in the country each year.

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