Content warning. Readers may find this article distressing.
Qatar Airways is facing a consumer boycott following an incident at Doha airport in which more than a dozen female passengers were “invasively” strip-searched during a transit stop earlier this month.
Thirteen Australian women were forced to disembark a Qatar Airways flight bound for Sydney on October 2 and were subjected to invasive medical examinations in an ambulance on the tarmac of Hamad International Airport.
The Qatari government’s communications office said the searches began after a newborn, premature baby girl was found in a rubbish bin at the airport, concealed in a plastic bag and buried in garbage in what “appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her”.
Authorities determined the child had been born at the airport and apparently searched passengers for signs of childbirth, though it’s unclear why the women were singled out or why the invasive searches were thought necessary.
“While the aim of the urgently decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action,” the statement said. The baby, whose mother has not been located, is safe and receiving medical care in Doha, the government added.
Several Australian women stranded overseas told HuffPost Australia they have either cancelled their bookings with Qatar Airways, deliberately booked on an alternative airline or will not travel with the Qatari national airline in the future in solidarity with the women whom Amnesty International says suffered a “a gross breach” of human rights.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne called the incident “a grossly disturbing, offensive, concerning set of events”.
“I won’t risk it, and I won’t support it.”
Aberdeen Hinze, an Australian woman stranded in Brighton, England, had just been ‘bumped’ from her fourth Qatar Airways flight home when the Doha incident became global news.
The number of Australians allowed to return home has been limited to 4,000 a week since July, causing a huge backlog of what could be 100,000 stranded passengers. Many Australians trying to return home are complaining of repeated flight cancellations or being bumped off flights in favour of business or first-class passengers, sometimes within hours of their scheduled departures.
Outraged by the Qatar incident, Hinze, a secondary music teacher from Brisbane, immediately cancelled her ticket.
“I refuse to fly through a country whose laws allow this to happen. Those poor women had probably already been through so much stress. I’m so sorry that they experienced such a traumatic flight home,” Hinze said.
“(Moreover), as a stranded Aussie I already feel very vulnerable, so the last thing I want is to be transiting through a country which uses such barbaric methods to assess such a situation. Personally, I wouldn’t have coped.”
Hinze, whose UK work visa is expiring, said there are limited alternatives to flying home from Europe and that she is considering applying for a de-facto visa in order to stay in the UK in case a flight with another airline doesn’t become available in the short term.
“The only option for me now is to wait for a flight to become available with Singapore Airlines, or if Qantas decides to recommence operations,” she said.
“I was really hoping to see my family this Christmas after two years abroad. I miss them lots. But I will not give money to Qatar Airways. I don’t care if it wasn’t their fault – the fact of the matter is, I wouldn’t want to be found in this position, ever.”
“I won’t risk it, and I won’t (support it).”
“Unimaginable, sickening, horrific.”
Another Australian woman, stranded in Berlin, who requested anonymity, is also boycotting Qatar Airways but is concerned about the impact a large-scale industrial boycott could have on the tens of thousands of stranded Australians trying to return home from Europe via the Middle East.
“What happened is unimaginable, sickening and horrific,” she said. “But what I don’t want to see is an industry backlash against the airline, like what the Trade Workers Union (TWU) has been proposing.”
“As much as we shouldn’t condone the incident, in the current (pandemic) situation Qatar Airlines is effectively Australia’s international airline, bringing many stranded Australians home.”
Earlier this week, the TWU announced it was considering industrial action against Qatar’s national airline by refusing to service, clean or refuel Qatar Airways jets over what the union describes as a “brutal violation of human rights of female passengers” at the hands of Qatari authorities.
However, on Thursday, the TWU released a statement demanding the Australian and Qatari governments “be completely transparent when it comes to the full investigation of these human rights violations” and placed both authorities “on notice regarding possible future action”.
HuffPost’s source said that under normal circumstances, she would support such a TWU strike, “but any action to punish Qatar Airways now would only leave more vulnerable Australian women stranded”.
“The Australian government needs to take responsibility for the situation their travel restrictions have created. Australians have been left with few choices to return via transit countries where women’s rights would be respected,” she said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded that Qatar Airways was performing an important role in repatriating Australians stranded during the pandemic, but was determined to ensure there was no repeat of the incident.
“We will continue to take a strident approach on this and we are appalled by what occurred,” he said.
Doha’s Hamad International Airport is continuing to appeal for the unidentified child’s mother to come forward.
Qatar Airways declined HuffPost Australia’s request for further comment.