29 Oct 2020

Women on 10 planes were strip-searched at Qatar airport, Australian minister says

8:03 am on 29 October 2020

Women from as many as 10 different aircraft at a Doha airport were subjected to invasive internal examinations by Qatari authorities this month, Foreign Minister Marise Payne has revealed.

A Qatar Airways Airbus A350-941 aircraft is seen on the tarmac at Hamad International Airport in the Qatari capital Doha.

Australian officials have confirmed 18 of its citizens were subjected to invasive internal examinations by Qatari authorities this month. Photo: AFP / Karim Jaafar

The episode, which happened as airport authorities searched for the mother of a newborn baby found abandoned in a bin at the airport, has sparked outrage in Australia and infuriated officials and politicians in Canberra.

Today Senator Payne told a parliamentary hearing that a total of 18 women were removed from a plane bound for Australia.

Thirteen were Australians, five were of other nationalities.

It is not clear how many of them were searched.

However, some of the Australian women on the flight, from Doha to Sydney, spoke up about their ordeal earlier this week.

The minister did not reveal the nationalities of the other women, or say where the other flights were going, but the ABC understands citizens of France and the United Kingdom were subjected to searches.

She reiterated that the Australian Government had formally registered its "serious concern" with Qatar, arguing the treatment of Australian women was "offensive" and "grossly inappropriate".

Australia has also demanded Qatar submit a report to Australia about the incident, which Senator Payne said would be handed to Australia "very soon".

Australis's Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

Baby girl dumped in rubbish bin, Qatar says

Today the Qatari Government expressed regret for any distress caused by the searches and said the newborn baby girl had been found in a plastic bag in a rubbish bin.

In a statement, it said it had directed a "comprehensive, transparent investigation" into the incident.

The statement said the girl, who survived the ordeal, had been found in a bag, buried under garbage, in "what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her".

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) secretary Frances Adamson said she was "incredulous" that the searches occurred, and said the department had made "intensive" representations to Qatar.

"There is a very strong determination [in Qatar's Government] to report as soon as possible," she said.

She also said the Qatari Government's reaction "matches our own in terms of level of distress and abhorrence and a deep questioning of how this can have happened".

"[They are] appalled by it, do not want it to happen again and are working with us and other partners to make sure it will not happen again," she told the hearing.

Earlier this week, some Australians who were on a flight from Doha to Sydney described being searched by authorities who were apparently checking to see if they had just given birth.

One told the ABC she was with a group of about six women taken to ambulances for examinations.

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

Payne yet to speak to opposite number in Qatar

Labor Senator Penny Wong grilled Senator Payne about why she had not yet spoken to Qatar's Foreign Minister about the episode.

"Don't you think Australians and the women concerned would expect that of our foreign minister?" she asked.

Payne said she would do so as soon as she was equipped with the report.

"[The women concerned] would expect us to get the best information possible from the Qatari system and to make it very clear to Qatar our concerns in relation to this matter," she told the hearing.

"I have indicated that my priority is to get the report so I can deal with that directly so we can engage in acquiring that report as soon as it's available.

"It's very clear this is not acceptable."

Adamson also confirmed a DFAT staffer was on one of the flights but said she was not searched because she was "not of child-bearing age".

"The staff member was transiting on return to Australia, but was not on official duty," she said.

"Like other passengers she was shocked at what happened."