Australia on Wednesday said that female passengers from as many as 10 aircraft flying out of Qatar this month were invasively searched by authorities looking for the mother an abandoned newborn baby.
The revelation from Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne greatly expands the number of women believed to have been subjected to searches during the incident, which was first reported to involve a single Sydney-bound flight.
Ms Payne informed a Senate committee that 18 women, including 13 Australian citizens, were searched on that Qatar Airways flight on 2 October.
It raises the prospect that women of multiple other nationalities are involved, with AFP reporting that at least one French citizen was searched. Australia has said it is working with “two or three” other countries to raise concerns about the incident through diplomatic channels.
The total number of women involved from across the 10 aircraft is not known.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade came to know about the incident after some passengers complained to the Australian authorities that they were told to take off their clothes so a doctor could check whether they had given birth recently.
Amid mounting outrage, the Qatar government said it had been searching for the mother after a newborn infant was found in a bin, concealed in a “plastic bag and buried under garbage” at Doha’s Hamad International Airport (HIA) on 2 October.
On Wednesday, Qatar expressed “regrets for any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms” of any travellers caused by the searches and announced a “comprehensive” and “transparent investigation” into the incident.
“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her. The infant is now safe under medical care in Doha,” said the statement while noting that this was the first instance of an abandoned infant being discovered in such conditions at the airport.
Qatar said the aim of the “urgently-decided search” was to “prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping”. It said the results of the investigation will be shared with their international partners and that Qatar was committed to the “safety, security and comfort of all travellers” transiting through the country.
Human Rights Watch said that the reported invasion of the women’s privacy was rightly making headlines but the “circumstances that might have led a woman to leave the baby in the airport bathroom should be too.”
It demanded that Qatar should prohibit forced “gynaecological exams and investigate and bring to account any individuals who authorised any demeaning treatment.”
But Qatar should also decriminalise sex outside of wedlock, HRW said, and authorities should ensure that pregnant people, regardless of their marital status, have access to quality sexual and reproductive health care and choices, including access to contraception, abortion, prenatal care, obstetric care, and adoption services without fearing arrest or prison.