Pressure is mounting on the Australian government for a strong response to the “disturbing” strip searches of women at a Qatar airport, with a Liberal senator saying the victims’ human rights had been breached.
The scandal was sparked after staff at Doha’s Hamad international airport found a newly-born baby in a bathroom earlier in October.
Airport employees, citing medical advice, began searching for the mother of the newborn child.
This allegedly led to several women, including 13 Australians on a flight bound for Sydney, being taken off their plane and forced to undergo invasive physical searches in an ambulance parked on the airport tarmac. Officials reportedly asked women to take off their underwear before being examined, with one report likening the search to “a forced pap smear”.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne called the incident “offensive, grossly inappropriate, and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent”. She has asked for a report from Qatari authorities as soon as possible, but could not immediately say what formal action the Australian government could or would take.
On Tuesday, Liberal senator Sarah Henderson said the treatment of the women involved was “absolutely abhorrent”.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this constitutes a breach of human rights,” she told The New Daily in Canberra.
“This should never have happened and we must make sure it never happens again.”
Senator Henderson, from Victoria, praised Senator Payne for her “strong” response to the scandal.
“I expect that we will see some strong action from our government as a result of what’s happened,” she said.
Labor’s shadow foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, also called for the federal government to call Qatar to account for the incident. She said she was “genuinely horrified” by the reports.
“These women have been subjected to an outrageous violation,” Senator Wong told Nine’s Today.
“We need to get to the bottom of what happened. We need to know why this happened, what happened, who is accountable for it, and there needs to be appropriate response from the Qatari government.”
"No Australian, no person, should ever be treated in the way these women were treated." Penny Wong addresses the invasive search of 13 Australian women at a Qatar airport. #9Today pic.twitter.com/1QCgxB4uf9
— The Today Show (@TheTodayShow) October 26, 2020
She said she wanted the government to liaise with the women who were searched, to ask them what action they would like to see.
“There should be an apology for what has occurred, as well as people fronting up as to who made the decision to engage in such outrageous behaviour,” Senator Wong said.
“They need to go beyond words and actually ensure that there is action taken – not just an apology, which I would anticipate would be something that would be helpful to the women concerned – but measures taken both to ensure people know who was responsible and that Australians are safe.”
Labor’s shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, said the report on the incident from the Qatar government was coming “much too slow”. Senator Payne said on Monday she hoped to receive information from the report in coming days.
Amnesty International has also voiced concerns the searches might have violated human rights.
Amnesty’s national director in Australia, Sam Klintworth, said Qatar had serious questions to answer, and called on the federal government to take stronger action.
“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?” she said.
“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.”