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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada could be admitting people who are security threats or carrying serious diseases because of a flawed visa system, a parliamentary watchdog warned on Tuesday.
The report by the auditor general is likely to bolster U.S. critics seeking much tighter controls on the U.S.-Canada border on the grounds that Ottawa is letting in terror suspects and militants who could one day attack the United States.
Interim Auditor General John Wiersema said visa and security officials "need to do a much better job of managing the health, safety and security risks" of applicants."
Wiersema said officials at the two main departments involved, Citizenship and Immigration and the Border Services Agency, were overworked, ill-trained, poorly supervised and were using outdated methods.
"Visa officers are responsible for deciding whether to grant or refuse a visa to enter Canada. The system lacks basic elements to ensure they get the right information to make those decisions," he said in a statement. "We've been reporting some of these problems with visas for 20 years, and I find it disturbing that fundamental weaknesses still exist."
In 2010, visa officers processed applications for 1.04 million people seeking temporary residence and 317,000 people seeking permanent residence. Canada, with a population of 34.5 million, is one of the few western nations actively encouraging immigration.
The report comes at a sensitive time. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will meet in Washington next month to sign an agreement on closer co-operation on border security.
"Why is the prime minister heading such a disorganized government?" opposition Liberal Party legislator John McCallum asked in the House of Commons.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said he shared Wiersema's concerns and the government had made "made significant investments in improving security screening".
Ottawa was embarrassed in 1999 when U.S. officials arrested Algerian-born Ahmed Ressam as he crossed from Canada on a mission to blow up Los Angeles airport. Ressam had ignored a deportation order and used a faked birth certificate to gain a Canadian passport.
Wiersema said two of the Border Services' manuals used to help officers screen for security risks had not been updated for several years and one was last revised in 1999.
"There has been no analysis to determine whether the current risk indicators to help identify potentially inadmissible applicants are appropriate or properly applied," he said.
Almost two-thirds of foreign-based visa officers interviewed by Wiersema's team reported problems validating information provided by applicants.
Wiersema also found potential immigrants were not being properly assessed to see if they were medically admissible. Officials focus on syphilis and tuberculosis even though the federal Public Health Agency has identified 56 diseases that need monitoring.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson and Janet Guttsman