Female passengers flying from Qatar were subjected to invasive searches after a premature baby was found abandoned in an airport bathroom, in an incident labelled "offensive" and "grossly inappropriate" by Australia's government.

Airport officials have not denied the incident, saying women passengers "were asked to assist" with inquiries to locate the mother of the baby, who they say is still alive.

Qatari authorities have launched an appeal to trace the infant's family.

Security agents escorted an undisclosed number of women -- including Australians -- from aircraft on the tarmac at Doha's international airport to ambulances, where they were examined for signs they had recently given birth.

"(Officials) were forcing women to undergo invasive body searches -- basically forced Pap smears," a source in Doha briefed on the incident told AFP, referring to an internal examination of the cervix.

Doha's Hamad International airport said in a statement that "medical professionals expressed concern to officials about the health and welfare of a mother who had just given birth and requested she be located prior to departing".

"Individuals who had access to the specific area of the airport where the new born infant was found were asked to assist in the query," the statement said.

It did not state what was asked of the women or how many were affected.

An Australian government spokeswoman said the country was "deeply concerned at the unacceptable treatment" of the female passengers.

The invasive searches held up departure of one Qatar Airways flight to Australia for four hours
The invasive searches held up departure of one Qatar Airways flight to Australia for four hours AFP / PASCAL PAVANI

"The advice that has been provided indicates that the treatment of the women concerned was offensive, grossly inappropriate, and beyond circumstances in which the women could give free and informed consent," she said in a statement.

The incident, first reported by Australia's Seven Network broadcaster, happened on October 2 and came to light after a number of affected Australian passengers spoke out.

One of the flights involved, Qatar Airways' October 2 flight QR908 to Sydney, was four hours late departing Doha as a result, according to specialised air traffic website Flightradar24.

Women from several other countries and flights are understood to have been affected, but their numbers and nationalities are not yet known.

Doha airport launched an appeal late Sunday for the child's mother to come forward, suggesting that the checks undertaken at the time were inconclusive.

"The newborn infant remains unidentified, but is safe under the professional care of medical and social workers," it said in its statement, and requested that anyone with information come forward.

Qatar's foreign minister is expected to write to his Australian counterpart about the incident this week.

The Australian spokeswoman said the government has "formally registered our serious concerns regarding the incident with Qatari authorities".

"The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is engaged on this matter through diplomatic channels," it said.

Qatar practices a strict form of Islamic law, with stiff penalties applied to women who fall pregnant or bear children outside marriage.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has grounded many airlines' long-haul operations, including those of Australia's flag-carrier Qantas, while Qatar Airways has continued to fly many of its routes despite the downturn in demand.