Australia refers invasive search of women at Qatar airport to federal police

One of the Qatar Airways flights involved was four hours late departing Doha as a result. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS, AFP) - An incident at Doha's Hamad airport, where Australian women were taken off a plane and subjected to an invasive search after the discovery of a newborn baby abandoned in the terminal, has been referred to Australian federal police, Australia said.

Thirteen Australians were among the women on the flight run by state-owned Qatar Airways who were forced to undergo a medical examination in an ambulance after the newborn was found in an airport bathroom, television network Seven News said.

All adult women on the flight, regardless of age, were made to disembark for the examination, two of the women told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Security agents escorted the women from aircraft on the tarmac at the airport to ambulances, where they were examined for signs they had recently given birth.

"(Officials) were forcing women to undergo invasive body searches - basically forced Pap smears," a source in Doha briefed on the incident told AFP, referring to an internal examination of the cervix.

On Monday (Oct 26), Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne confirmed the women had contacted the Australian government at the time of the incident, adding that it had taken up the matter with Qatar's ambassador.

The "extraordinary incident" had also been reported to the Australian Federal Police, she said.

"This is a grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events," Ms Payne told media.

"It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life, in any context. We have made our views very clear to the Qatari authorities."

The incident, first reported by Australia's Seven Network broadcaster, happened on Oct 2 and came to light after a number of affected Australian passengers spoke out.

One of the flights involved, Qatar Airways' Oct 2 flight QR908 to Sydney, was four hours late departing Doha as a result, according to specialised 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 Sunday for the child's mother to come forward, suggesting that the checks undertaken at the time were inconclusive.

In a statement, the Australian federal police said they were aware of the incident, and were engaging with the department of foreign affairs and trade.

In a statement, Hamad International Airport, which is part of the Qatar Airways Group, said the newborn found abandoned on Oct 2 had not been identified and was receiving medical care.

"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)," it said.

"Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the newborn infant was found were asked to assist in the query."

Australia expects a report this week from authorities in Qatar, Ms Payne said.

There were significant concerns over the issue of securing consent for the medical examinations, she said, adding, "These are very private and personal matters."

In a statement, the Australian government said reports indicated treatment "beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent".

The women received medical and psychological support on arrival in Sydney, and began Australia's mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine required for Covid-19 border control, a spokesman for health authorities in New South Wales state told Reuters.

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