Female passengers were ordered off an Australia-bound flight and strip-searched after a newborn was found abandoned in a Doha airport bathroom, according to travelers and authorities.
More than 40 women were removed from a flight to Sydney and marched to ambulances, where they were subjected to invasive gynecological examinations to determine if they had recently given birth, passengers said in media interviews.
Hamad International Airport in Qatar was closed for nearly four hours while workers tried to find the mother of the baby, who was said to be doing well and in the custody of child welfare authorities.
The invasive exams sparked outrage in Australia, where government leaders demanded answers from Qatari officials.
“We have formally registered our serious concerns regarding the incident with Qatari authorities and have been assured that detailed and transparent information on the event will be provided soon," read a statement from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
The searches occurred on Oct. 2, but were not made public until Australia's 7News broke the story on Sunday.
A 31-year-old nurse told Australian officials she had been examined at the airport, in an ambulance parked on the tarmac, she said. She asked to be identified only by her first name, Jessica, to protect her privacy because of the invasive exam, The New York Times reported.
“I was scared,” she said in an interview on Monday. “We were all, like, ‘Can someone please tell us what is happening?’”
The nurse said a female airport worker said only there was a baby found in a trash bin, and that women were being examined.
She and and another woman were ordered to lie down and remove their underwear, she said. The ambulance windows had no covering, and there were more than 12 men standing outside, she said.
The exams lasted about15 to 20 minutes, she said.
“It was incredibly invasive and I was freaking out,” she said. “I still didn’t know what was happening.
“I remember lying there. I think I was in shock but I was thinking, ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t how this should be done.’”
Qatar has long been criticized for gender inequality. Women are not permitted to have sex or to bear children outside marriage. Doing so can result in prison sentences.
That added to the women's distress, passengers said. They feared they would be locked up and not allowed back on their flight.
A male passenger said all the women on the flight were ordered off the plane, and told to bring their passports.
“I personally found this disturbing,” Dr.Wolfgang Babeck, a law professor who had been visiting his ailing father in Germany and was on his way back to Sydney.
When the female passengers returned to the jetliner, many appeared “shell shocked,” and others were crying. “Everybody was, of course, desperate to get home,” he said.
Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, said Monday the exams were "a grossly, grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events.
“It is not something that I have ever heard of occurring in my life, in any context. We have made our views very clear to Qatari authorities on this matter,” Payne said.
Other women of differing nationalities were also searched, passengers said. Qatar authorities said they would investigate the incidents, Payne said.