DARWIN, Australia — The Australian government on Monday demanded answers from Qatar Airways after female passengers on a flight to Sydney from Doha reported that they had been removed from the plane, strip-searched and given invasive medical exams to see if they had recently given birth.
The incident occurred earlier this month after a premature newborn was found abandoned in a terminal bathroom at Hamad International Airport in the Qatari capital, according to accounts provided to the Australian authorities.
“The Australian government is deeply concerned at the unacceptable treatment of some female passengers on a recent Qatar Airways flight at Doha Airport,” the Australian authorities said in a statement released on Monday.
It called the women’s treatment “offensive, grossly inappropriate and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent.”
The government said it had registered its concerns with the Qatari authorities. Neither Qatar Airways nor officials at Hamad Airport could be immediately reached for comment. Much remains unclear, such as if any of the passengers had given permission for the exams, and the identity of the newborn’s parents. The BBC reported that the baby was being cared for.
Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Marise Payne, said on Monday at a news conference in Canberra, the capital, that government officials had been made aware of the incident by passengers on the flight from Doha. None of the women involved have been publicly identified.
“This is a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events,” Ms. Payne said. “It is not something I have ever heard of occurring in my life in any context.”
Ms. Payne added that Qatari officials had indicated they would provide a report on the incident, and that once she had reviewed the details, the government would determine its next steps.
“It has been taken up directly with the ambassador here and, of course, directly with authorities in Doha,” she said.
Flight QR908 was waiting on the tarmac when the crew asked all the women on board to disembark, Wolfgang Babeck, a passenger, said in an interview. He said he saw more than a dozen Australian women, as well as women of other nationalities, being removed from the plane.
“About three hours in, there was an announcement that the women should disembark. I personally found this disturbing,” said Dr. Babeck, a law professor who was returning to Australia after visiting his sick father in Germany.
He said he later learned from the women that they had been escorted back to the terminal, where they had been given invasive exams by a female doctor. At least 13 women from Australia were medically examined, according to reports from the women given to the Australian government and accounts from other passengers. Some news reports indicated they had been examined in an ambulance on the tarmac.
When the women returned to the plane, Dr. Babeck said, many appeared “shellshocked,” and others were crying. “Everybody was, of course, desperate to get home,” he added.
Australia has among the strictest travel regulations in the world in response to the pandemic, and anyone coming into or leaving the country must get permission from the authorities, even Australian citizens. The country recently set up a one-way travel bubble with New Zealand, under which travelers to Sydney or Darwin, Australia, from Auckland, New Zealand, will not be required to quarantine in Australia after a negative test.
The director of Amnesty International Australia, Samantha Klintworth, noting that news outlets reported that the incident occurred on Oct. 2, said in a statement: “The women subjected to this terrible ordeal appear to have come forward straight away and told authorities what occurred at the airport. Why then has it taken until now, following a report in the media, for the department to approach the Qatari authorities for an explanation?”
“There must be an independent investigation into the events that took place if we are to ever get a truly transparent account of what occurred and to establish unequivocally who is responsible and hold them to account for this gross breach of these women’s rights,” she said.
Livia Albeck-Ripka reported from Darwin, Australia, and Yan Zhuang from Melbourne, Australia.