An Australian woman has described the “terrifying” experience of being taken off a Qatar Airways flight by authorities who strip-searched passengers as they tried to identify the mother of an infant found in the Doha airport toilets.
Kim Mills was one of nine women taken off a Qatar Airways flight bound for Sydney on 2 October and led through the bowels of the Hamad International airport to what appeared to be a dark carpark or turning circle, where three ambulances were waiting to perform medical examinations to determine if any of the women had recently given birth.
Mills was the only woman not subject to an examination.
“They told me to step forward, to go into the ambulance, and as I stepped forward another officer came round and stood in front of me and said: ‘No, no, you go, you go’,” Mills told Guardian Australia. “And as I was standing there with this officer telling me to go, a young lass came out of the ambulance and she was crying and distraught.
“I just turned around and started walking with her trying to comfort her. I said, ‘What’s wrong, what’s going on?’ And she told me that they’d found a baby in the bathroom at the airport and they were examining all the women.
“I was the luckiest one on the whole flight because I have grey hair and I’m in my 60s. They probably looked at me and thought well, that’s impossible, it could not be her.”
Later, other women on the flight told her they were told to remove their underwear in order to be examined.
Mills had flown to Italy in June to support her daughter, who had recently given birth. She booked a business class ticket after reading media reports of economy-class travellers being bumped from flights.
She was the first of about 34 passengers to board the flight in Doha and immediately changed into airline pyjamas and went to sleep. But the plane did not take off.
“Every hour, the captain or the co-pilot came on and apologised for the delay, saying that he was waiting for permission to taxi,” she said. “And I just went back to sleep. I was finally woken, I guess it was three hours later, by the head steward actually shaking me awake. He said I had to get my passport and leave the plane.
“Being half awake, I thought: what are you talking about, what’s going on?
“He said, the police need to talk to you, and you need to get your passport and come straight away.”
Mills said she had no time to change out of her pyjamas and slippers. She walked to the door of the plane and presented her passport to two waiting guards, assuming it was a simple check.
“They said: ‘No no, you have to come with us.’ I was absolutely terrified at that stage, I didn’t know what was happening.”
She was walked by the guards across the air bridge to the waiting area by the gate, where the other women from her flight were waiting. She approached a female guard and asked what was going on.
“She said, ‘No no no, you’ll find out when we take you downstairs,’” Mills said.
“Finally, they took me downstairs in a lift which felt like you were going down to the bottom of the airport. And then I came out of the lift and there were two officers, and they started walking towards big glass sliding doors. I thought, what are they doing with me, where are they taking me? All of these things are going through my head. I still didn’t know the reason.
“And as I looked through the glass door I noticed they had at least two ambulances lined up but they were side-door ambulances, a bit like a Tarago van … I could sort of see someone dressed in surgical clothes, surgical gear, and I thought it must be something to do with coronavirus.”
Mills said had it not been for the coronavirus, she would have been “an absolute mess” from fear.
“Because I kept on thinking it had something to do with them wanting to test us,” she said. “When I saw the ambulance, I thought: ‘Oh they’re going to do a coronavirus test, they must be doing all the females first. It must be some kind of random testing they are doing and then they will do all the males.’ It made it seem normal.
“Under any other circumstances I would probably have caused quite a fuss … So I guess I can be thankful for the coronavirus that I kept it all together and did what I was told.”
It is illegal to have sex outside marriage in Qatar. In neighbouring United Arab Emirates, unmarried migrant mothers are required to serve a jail sentence before they can leave the country. Healthcare workers are required to report any unmarried mothers for breaking the law, so many choose to give birth without assistance, not in hospital.
After the women on the Qatar Airways were examined, Mills said, they were brought upstairs and taken to an interview room, where they were asked to provide their flight information. By the time they were allowed back on the plane, Mills said, her legs were shaking.
“My legs were just wobbling,” she said. “I was just so pleased to be back on the plane because I was terrified they were going to take me away somewhere … Why didn’t they explain to us what was going on? It was horrible, not knowing, to me that was one of the worst parts of it.”
Mills said the Qatar Airways staff on the flight were “absolutely horrified”.
“[The head steward] said the captain and the pilot don’t even know why we’ve been held and what’s going on.” She said the staff told her: “We knew nothing, they gave us no reason at all why you had to be taken off the plane.”
Before the passengers left the plane in Sydney, the head steward conveyed an apology on behalf of the captain and the crew.
“It was absolutely terrible,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it was like for those poor young girls, it must have been horrendous. I’m a mother of three daughters and when I got back on the plane and reflected on it and thought, I am so glad it wasn’t any of my girls.
“I just think of the poor young girls. I don’t know why they had to put them through that, I really don’t.”
The passengers on the plane did not speak about what had occurred as a group until they were on a bus on the tarmac at Sydney airport, where they waited for 90 minutes to be driven to the terminal. One woman collected contact information to make a report to the Australian federal police.
On Monday the Australian foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, said it was a “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.
“This is an extraordinary incident and I have never heard of anything occurring like this in my life,” she said.
Guardian Australia understands Payne has contacted Qatar’s ambassador to Australia and requested an investigation into the incident be completed by the end of the week. The Australian government first raised concerns with the ambassador on 6 October.
In an earlier statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said reports indicated that the treatment of the women was “offensive, grossly inappropriate, and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent”.
Payne said the matter had been taken up with the Qatari ambassador in Canberra and she expected to see the local authorities’ report on what had happened.
A federal police spokesperson said police were engaging with the department, which was the lead agency on the matter.