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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian authorities cannot find 41,000 people who were classified as security risks or illegal immigrants and ordered to leave the country, an official watchdog reported on Tuesday.
Auditor-General Sheila Fraser said that in some cases the failure of the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) to keep track of potential security threats could "result in undue risk to the public."
She also said a police database of those told to leave Canada is riddled with errors, and said computer problems mean authorities have only a limited ability to track offenders.
The revelations are likely to embarrass the Conservative government, which won power in January 2006 on a pledge to boost law and order.
Fraser said that in September 2007, some 63,000 people had been served with immigration warrants ordering them to leave Canada. The Border Services Agency -- responsible for expelling those deemed undesirable -- knew the location of 22,000.
"The remaining 41,000 cases are individuals with immigration warrants for removal whose whereabouts are unknown to the agency," Fraser wrote in an official report.
Canada's lack of exit controls means there is no way of knowing how many of the 41,000 were in Canada. Fraser said most were refugees whose applications had been rejected.
In the 2006-07 fiscal year, the CBSA removed 12,600 people, including 1,900 criminals "who posed a high risk to Canada."
Critics, particularly some in the United States, have long complained that Canada is too lax about cracking down on illegal immigrants and others who could pose a security risk.
Ottawa was deeply embarrassed in 1999 when Ahmed Ressam, an illegal Algerian immigrant who ignored orders to leave the country, and then obtained a fake Canadian passport, was caught trying to enter the United States with a car containing explosives. He was later convicted of trying to blow up Los Angeles airport.
Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said he was concerned by the report but noted the CBSA was deporting more people than in the past.
"There is still more improvement that is needed ... we're still not happy, it's not perfect," he told reporters.
Jack Layton, leader of the opposition New Democrats, said the government was inept.
Fraser said computer problems meant "the agency's ability to track individuals in the detention and removal process remains limited." A check last October of a police database detailing the removal orders found several thousand errors.
In 2003, opposition legislators criticized the previous Liberal government after Fraser's office estimated that 36,000 people who should have been kicked out were still in Canada.
"There remains a growing number of individuals who might be in Canada illegally -- whose whereabouts are unknown -- thereby jeopardizing the integrity of Canada's immigration program," Fraser wrote.
Reporting by David Ljunggren