Reuters International

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) contractors including translators wait for the arrival of Syrian refugees at the Welcome Centre in Montreal, Quebec, December 12, 2015. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

(reuters_tickers)

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government is doing a bad job of weeding out fraudulent citizenship applications and this means ineligible people can obtain Canadian passports, the country's top watchdog said on Tuesday.

The findings could alarm U.S. critics already worried by what they say are the security risks posed by the new Liberal government's decision to quickly accept 25,000 Syrian refugees after taking power last November.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson said in a report he had discovered a series of problems in the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRC) department, which is responsible for making sure only eligible people can become Canadian nationals.

"We found that (IRC) was not adequately detecting and preventing fraud in the citizenship programme," concluded the audit, which said officials lacked a systematic method of identifying and documenting fraud risks.

"People were granted citizenship based on incomplete information or without all of the necessary checks being done," it said. The audit covered the period from July 2014 to October 2015, when the former Conservative government was in power.

More than 260,000 people became Canadian citizens in 2014, an all-time record. Canada has a population of around 36 million.

The system is supposed to weed out people convicted of serious offences, those who have faked residency papers or have entered into marriages of convenience.

But Ferguson said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the border security agency were doing a poor job of sharing data about criminal charges and potential residency fraud.

For example, one address was not identified as a problem even though it had been used over a seven-year period by at least 50 applicants, seven of whom were granted citizenship.

Revoking citizenship is time-consuming and costly. As of January 2016, IRC had about 700 revocation cases pending.

The department also has responsibility for refugees and coordinated the effort to bring in 25,000 people from Syria.

In February, the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee probed the effort, citing the possibility that violent militants could mix in and cross the long, largely porous U.S.-Canada border.

Congressional aides say U.S. officials remain wary of Canada's screening, noting it is nearly impossible for foreign governments to verify the backgrounds and identities of refugees.

At the time, Canadian officials defended what they said was a very strong security system.

John McCallum, the government minister in charge of the IRC, was due to react to the report later on Tuesday.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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