Female passengers flying from Qatar were subjected to invasive searches after a premature baby was found abandoned in an airport bathroom in an incident described as “offensive” and “grossly inappropriate” by the Australian government.
Airport officials have not denied the incident, saying female passengers were “asked to help” with queries to find the mother’s baby, who they say is still alive.
Qatar authorities have launched an appeal to track down the infant’s family.
Security agents escorted an unknown number of women – including Australians – from planes on the tarmac at Doha International Airport to ambulances, where they were examined for signs they had recently given birth to.
“(Officials) forced women to undergo invasive body searches – basically forced Pap smears,” a Doha source told AFP, citing an internal cervical examination.
Doha’s Hamad International Airport said in a statement that “medical professionals expressed concern to officials about a mother who had just given birth and requested that she be located before departure”.
“Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the newborn was found were asked to help with the query,” the statement said.
It did not state what the women were asked for or how many were affected.
A spokeswoman for the Australian government said the country was “deeply concerned about the unacceptable treatment” of the female passengers.
“The advice given indicates that the treatment of the women in question was abusive, grossly inappropriate and beyond circumstances where women could give free and informed consent,” she said in a statement.
The incident, first reported by Australia’s Seven Network TV company, happened on 2 October and came to light after a number of affected Australian passengers spoke.
One of the flights involved, Qatar Airways’ 2. October flight QR908 to Sydney, was four hours late with departure from Doha, according to the specialized air traffic website Flightradar24.
Women from several other countries and flights are understood to have been affected, but their numbers and nationalities are not yet known.
Doha Airport launched an appeal late on Sunday that the child’s mother should come forward, suggesting that the checks carried out at the time were not decisive.
“The newborn baby remains unidentified but is probably under the professional care of medical and social workers,” it said in its statement, requesting that anyone with information should come forward.
Qatar’s foreign minister is expected to write to his Australian counterpart about the incident this week.
The Australian spokeswoman said the government “has formally registered our serious concerns regarding the incident with the Qatari authorities”.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is engaged in this matter through diplomatic channels,” it said.
Qatar practices a strict form of Islamic law with severe sanctions against women who become pregnant or give birth out of wedlock.
The new coronavirus pandemic has founded many airlines’ long-haul operations, including Australia’s flag carrier Qantas, while Qatar Airways has continued to fly many of its routes despite demand.