OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's opposition parties, seeking to end a near-decade of Conservative rule in this month's election, blasted Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday after it emerged officials had delayed the processing of some Syrian refugee claims.
Harper came under pressure last month to let in more refugees when it emerged that relatives of a Syrian toddler whose drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach had wanted to emigrate to Canada.
Harper said an audit of some applications from Syrian refugees had been carried out earlier this year to ensure that the most vulnerable applicants were being selected, while maintaining Canada's security.
He denied a report from the Globe and Mail newspaper that said political staff in his office wanted to have the final decision in approving applications.
"Our government has adopted a generous approach to the admission of refugees, while ensuring the selection of the most vulnerable people and keeping our country safe and secure," Harper said in Vancouver.
Harper has repeatedly said refugees need to be screened to prevent potential militants entering Canada disguised as refugees.
A Conservative source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, said applications from one group of Syrian refugees had been suspended for several weeks while an audit was carried out on applications filed by an earlier group.
The source said the audit took place after the applications had been approved by immigration officials. Political staff later reviewed the audit but did not interfere in the process, the source added.
Critics have long accused Harper and his office of interfering in all aspects of government rather than letting his ministers control their own portfolios.
"Stephen Harper himself prevented the arrival of Syrian families in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two ... that is abject behavior," Tom Mulcair, leader of the opposition New Democrats, said earlier in the day.
Polls show Harper is set to lose his majority in the Oct. 19 election and might even be removed from power by the opposition parties.
"There are very few people ... who are surprised when we hear reports of the prime minister and his office meddling in things in a political and non-transparent way," said Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Ottawa said last month it would speed up the processing of refugee applications to bring thousands Syrians and Iraqis to Canada by the end of 2015.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Frances Kerry