OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's government is not doing enough to weed 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 his officials had discovered many problems in the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship (IRC) department, which is responsible for ensuring only eligible individuals become Canadian nationals.
"We found that (IRC) was not adequately detecting and preventing fraud in the citizenship program," the audit concluded, adding 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 charge.
More than 260,000 people became Canadian citizens in 2014, an all-time record high. Canada has a population of 36 million.
The system is supposed to weed out anyone convicted of serious offenses, those with faked residency papers or people who have concluded marriages of convenience.
But Ferguson said the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the border security agency were not consistently 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.
John McCallum, the government minister in charge of the IRC, said the department was already boosting efforts to detect fraud and had reviewed the cases flagged by Ferguson.
"We've opened investigations toward possible citizenship revocation from about a dozen individuals," he said in a statement.
As of January 2016, IRC had about 700 revocation cases pending. The department has responsibility for refugees and coordinated the operation to accept the 25,000 Syrian refugees.
In February, the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee probed the effort, citing the possibility that militants could sneak in and then cross the U.S.-Canada border.
Congressional aides say U.S. officials remain wary of Canada's screening, noting it is virtually 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.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Phil Berlowitz, G Crosse