Scott Morrison says he will take more action over Qatari officials forcing Australian women to undergo invasive searches at a Doha airport, as the government comes under pressure to outline a more robust response to the scandalous incident.
The number of Australians subjected to intimate internal examinations after they were pulled off planes in Qatar has risen to at least 18, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said women from 10 planes were forced into the back of an ambulance for the alarming searches.
Qatar’s government finally responded to the furore on Wednesday, saying in a statement that it “regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler”.
The searches were prompted after officials at Hamad International Airport discovered a premature baby in a terminal bathroom, and wanted to find her mother.
Qatar said the child “was found in a trash can, concealed in a plastic bag and buried under garbage”.
“The baby girl was rescued from what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her,” they said.
The baby girl is reportedly “safe under medical care in Doha”.
Australian officials are investigating the incident, with the Australian Federal Police considering whether it has jurisdiction or power to launch a probe.
Senator Payne said she would wait for the results of a Qatari investigation before announcing what further recourse the government has.
The spotlight has turned to what action Australia has actually taken and why it took three weeks for the event to come to light.
The Prime Minister, in his first comments on the escalating diplomatic incident, expressed his shock but also did not shed more light on what Australia could do in response.
“We find this unacceptable. That has been the official message and conveyed very clearly in the investigation,” he said at a Canberra press conference on Wednesday.
“It was appalling. As a father of a daughter, I could only shudder at the thought that anyone would, Australian or otherwise, would be subjected to that.”
Mr Morrison said 15 per cent of Australians returning home from overseas were flying on Qatar Airways, and potentially transiting through Doha, which added to the urgency of learning more about why the searches occurred.
He said he wanted to wait for the official report before further commenting.
“It’s important we can look at that … We will make a further response once we have the opportunity to see the results of that investigation,” he said.
Qatar’s government committed that “the results of the investigation will be shared with our international partners”.
Liberal senator Sarah Henderson this week called the Qatar incident “a breach of human rights”.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that “forced gynaecological examinations can amount to sexual assault”.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally labelled the incident as “sexual assault” and demanded an apology for the women. She called on the federal government to take “appropriate” action against Qatar in response.
In Senate estimates, Senator Payne said the incident had triggered high-level diplomatic meetings.
“The issues which have been discussed in relation to this matter are very concerning and very distressing,” she told the committee in Canberra.
Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong questioned why Senator Payne had not yet spoken directly with her Qatari counterpart.
“Surely we know enough to raise our deep concern and express at the most senior levels of government the importance of the report being finalised promptly,” she said.
But Senator Payne said she was waiting for Qatar’s report before speaking with the country’s foreign minister.
“I asked to see the report to get a very clear understanding of events as they had occurred and from the Qatari perspective,” she said.
Senator Payne said it was unclear if citizens of any other countries were affected.
DFAT secretary Frances Adamson confirmed a staff member was on one of the planes but not searched because she was not of child-bearing age.
Ms Adamson recalled her shock when learning about the searches.
“It sounded incredible. As in how can this have happened?” she told the hearing.
“I was incredulous that it could have happened.”
Meanwhile, the Transport Workers’ Union NSW branch will meet on Thursday to vote on a potential boycott of the government-owned Qatar Airways.