26 Oct 2020

Australia demands answers after passengers strip-searched at Doha airport

2:36 pm on 26 October 2020

An Australian woman strip-searched by authorities at a Qatari airport after a premature baby was found in a bathroom says she is considering legal action over the "terrifying" experience.

Waiting the shuttle to the disembark gate during repatriation, 

Women on board a flight that was bound for Sydney were forced to undergo an examination in an ambulance parked on the tarmac at the airport in Doha. Photo: AFP

Two passengers from QR908 both told the ABC they had no idea what was happening to them when all women on the plane were asked to get off after a three-hour delay on 2 October.

The two women wanted to remain anonymous and did not know each other before boarding the flight to Sydney.

It had been due to leave Hamad International Airport (HIA) in Doha at 8:30pm local time but was delayed for three hours after a premature baby was found in a bathroom at the terminal - a detail confused passengers said was not communicated to them.

One of the women said all adult females were removed from the plane by authorities and taken to two ambulances waiting outside the airport.

"No-one spoke English or told us what was happening. It was terrifying," she said.

"There were 13 of us and we were all made to leave. A mother near me had left her sleeping children on the plane.

"There was an elderly woman who was vision impaired and she had to go too. I'm pretty sure she was searched."

She said while she respected Qatar's laws and culture, she was considering legal action.

"If the other 12 women came forward with a class action, I would definitely be part of that," she said.

The Australian government has registered "serious concerns" with Qatar after the incident.

A statement from Hamad Airport confirmed the baby is safe and was receiving medical care.

"At this time, the newborn infant remains unidentified, but is safe under the professional care of medical and social workers," the statement read.

"Medical professionals expressed concern to officials about the health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth and requested she be located prior to departing [the airport]."

Qatar Airways have not yet responded to a request for comment.

The mother of the baby has not been located.

Women on board a flight that was bound for Sydney, including 13 Australians, were detained and forced to undergo an examination in ambulances parked on the tarmac.

The women were required to take off their underwear for the invasive medical examination but were not told why.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne confirmed today that the women had contacted the Australian government at the time of the incident and that the government has formally raised concerns with Qatar.

"The Australian government is deeply concerned at the unacceptable treatment of some female passengers on a recent Qatar Airways flight at Doha Airport," she said.

"The advice that has been provided indicates that the treatment of the women concerned was offensive, grossly inappropriate, and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent.

"It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life, in any context.

"The government has formally registered our serious concerns about this incident with Qatari authorities."

She said the "extraordinary incident" had also been reported to the Australian Federal Police.

Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne

Marise Payne Photo: AFP

Sense of panic among women

The other female passenger who spoke to the ABC said she was with a group of about six women, who began panicking when they realised they were being taken outside the airport.

"When I got in there, and there was a lady with a mask on and then the authorities closed the ambulance behind me and locked it," she said.

"They never explained anything.

"She told me to pull my pants down and that I needed to examine my vagina.

"I said 'I'm not doing that' and she did not explain anything to me. She just kept saying, 'we need to see it we need to see it'."

The woman said she took her clothes off and was inspected, and touched, by the female nurse.

"I was panicking. Everyone had gone white and was shaking," she said.

"I was very scared at that point, I didn't know what the possibilities were."

The woman said she tried to get out of the ambulance and the authorities on the other side opened the door.

"I jumped out and then ran over to the other girls. There was nowhere for me to run," she said.

New South Wales police said the women were required to complete mandatory quarantine, but did receive support.

"Those women completed mandatory quarantine in NSW, during which time they were provided with medical and psychological support by NSW Health," it said in a statement.

"NSW Police referred it to the relevant Commonwealth authority."

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese described the incident as "really disturbing" and said he would ask for a briefing from the government.

"In my view, it is completely unacceptable," he said.

"The government has a relationship with Qatar, the government's in a position to regulate a range of activities and I would have thought that it needs something other than just strong words."

The Australian Federal Police said it was engaging with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, adding it would be "inappropriate to comment any further."

It is not clear what powers the AFP would have over the incident.


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