Asylum-seekers were issued with identity cards for the first time yesterday as part of a government attempt to crack down on fraud and illegal working. Civil liberties groups claimed that the new cards, which bear the holder's photograph and fingerprints, could lead to increased racial discrimination in society.
Both the human rights group Liberty and the Refugee Council said members of ethnic minorities might be asked to show the cards in doctor's surgeries or in police stop-and-searches, even if they were British citizens.
Roger Bingham, of Liberty, said it was "essential" that the cards were only required for specific asylum issues.
He said: "Any wider use would instantly risk creating discrimination against non-white people, including millions of British citizens, who might find themselves being asked repeatedly to show an entitlement card that they neither have nor need."
Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "We would be concerned if they became cards which asylum-seekers have to show to prove they are entitled to services. It would be very unwelcome if school secretaries and doctors' receptionists suddenly start deciding who does and does not get access to their services."
The Applicant Registration Cards, or ARC-cards, are the same size as a credit card. They will be much more difficult to forge than the old form of identification, the Standard Acknowledgement Letter, government officials say.
A Home Office spokesman said: "The rolling out of the ARC-cards represents the next stage in our battle to cut down on fraud and illegal working." He said the cards were a "more robust and secure form of identification" than the acknow-ledgement letters.
The first new "biometric" cards were being issued from yesterday to all new applicants at the Immigration Service centre in Croydon. Each card features the holder's date of birth and nationality, plus a secure, updatable microchip for additional information such as their address.
As well as being featured on the front of the card, the holder's photo is contained in digital form in the microchip, with a full set of fingerprints. The card also tells immigration staff which languages the asylum-seeker can speak, how many dependants they have and where and when the card was issued.
The cards will also be issued to children and other dependants not included in official asylum statistics, such as elderly parents.
The Home Office said the cost of introducing the system was "commercially confidential" but it would pay for itself by preventing 2,000 false claims in the next five years.
The Home Office minister Lord Rooker said: "The ARC is one of several new proposals outlined by the Home Secretary last October for radical and fundamental reform of asylum and immigration policy.
"By introducing the card, the Government is at the forefront of making the most of up-to-date technology to combat fraud and to ensure that asylum-seekers are identified rapidly at all stages of their application."
The programme to introduce the technology at other locations, including ports and airports, is expected to be complete by the autumn.