Australian officials have raised “serious concerns” with Qatari authorities after airline staff were accused of invasively strip-searching women, including 13 Australians, having taking them off a flight from Doha to Sydney.
The events of Friday, 2 October, came to light in a report by Australian broadcaster Seven News on Sunday night.
Flight QR908 to Sydney was due to leave Hamad International airport at 8.30pm but was delayed for four hours after a newborn infant, believed to have been prematurely born, was found in a terminal bathroom.
Women on board the flight were ordered to disembark without being told why and reportedly forced to strip and undergo an invasive medical examination nearby. After their return to the plane it was allowed to depart.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told ABC it had raised the incident with Qatari officials.
“We have formally registered our serious concerns regarding the incident with Qatari authorities and have been assured that detailed and transparent information on the event will be provided soon,” he said.
One of the 34 passengers on Flight QR908, Dr Wolfgang Babeck, told Guardian Australia that after about three hours of waiting on board the plane, the airline asked all the women on board to disembark. Upon their return “most of them were very upset”, Dr Babeck said.
“At least one of them was crying, they were discussing what had happened and saying that it was unacceptable and disgusting.”
New South Wales Police issued a statement saying that while the women were required to complete mandatory quarantine in Australia, they had been provided “with medical and psychological support by NSW Health” during that time.
“NSW Police referred it to the relevant Commonwealth authority,” the statement said.
Australian Federal Police confirmed they were aware of the reports and were engaging with Department of Foreign Affairs, telling the ABC that it would be “inappropriate to comment any further”.
Dr Babeck, who was returning to Australia after spending a month in Germany with his ill father, told Guardian Australia that some of the female passengers told him they had been taken off the plane and led into a non-public area of the airport and subject to the examination.
“They were taken by security personnel into the cellar, not knowing what was going on… And then they were presented to a female doctor and they were basically strip searched.... to see whether they may have given birth recently… Someone had been told that a baby had been found in the toilet and they were trying to find out who the mother was,” he said.
A spokesperson for Qatar Airways told Guardian Australia that it had launched an investigation.
“We appreciate the concerns and distress expressed to you by the Australian passengers who you have spoken to, and will be investigating these matters with the relevant authorities and officials,” the spokesperson said.
A spokesman for Hamad International Airport said it found an abandoned, newborn infant on the premises, was concerned about the mother's welfare, and asked "individuals" in the same area of the airport to "assist in the query."
The spokesman said the baby was "safe" and being looked after by social workers.