A week before the Danish general elections on November 1, the race seems as tight as ever, with polls showing the centre-left bloc neck and neck with the centre-right opposition.
A record-high number of voters have changed positions during the past weeks, and the new Moderates party is growing rapidly after campaigning to form a government across the traditional left-right divide in Danish politics.
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Regardless of the outcome, however, it seems certain that Denmark is set to continue its controversial path as one of Europe’s most restrictive countries when it comes to immigration and asylum.
The Scandinavian country’s centre-right parties all agree that its restrictive migration policies are the baseline for Danish national politics.
Meanwhile, the governing Social Democratic party has adopted the right’s anti-immigration agenda to the extent that its asylum policies have inspired European far-right parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany and the Sweden Democrats in Sweden.
The remaining smaller parties of the centre-left, such as the Social Liberal Party and leftist Red-Green Alliance, officially oppose Denmark’s controversial policies on immigration, including the revoking the residency permits of Syrian refugees and the push to relocate asylum seekers from Denmark to centres in Rwanda.
If the centre-left coalition should gain a majority with the Social Democrats as the governing party, the chances of them backtracking on anti-immigration policies are slim to none, according to political analyst and commentator Lars Trier Mogensen.
“During this government, the centre-left parties have pretty much given up on demands for more accommodative immigration laws, and they will not be able to push that agenda after an election either,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Social Democrats largely won the previous election in 2019 by attracting voters from the far right, and the party’s logic now is that any relaxing of immigration laws can cost them the government, Mogensen said.
“The centre-left parties have largely accepted this and are instead trying to influence the Social Democrats on other policy areas such as climate goals or the educational system”, he added.
‘Under the bus’
In the Northern Danish port city of Aalborg, Mahmoud Suhil Almohamad, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee, has been following the election’s televised debates with growing concern.
“It is clear that most politicians just want more votes and more power, and they don’t mind throwing refugees and foreigners under the bus to get them,” he told Al Jazeera.
The young medical student is disheartened by Denmark’s hostile attitudes towards some refugee groups.
This became particularly apparent in spring when Denmark welcomed Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian aggression.
Danish authorities suspended restrictive asylum rules for Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to work, study and access social benefits almost immediately upon arrival – also exempting them from Denmark’s controversial so-called “jewellery law”, which allows authorities to confiscate certain valuables from asylum seekers to fund their stay.
Almohamad is quick to stress that he was glad to see Ukrainians being treated well but he wishes it was the case for all newcomers.
“Some Syrians lived in tents for years, and I was not allowed to go to a Danish school. All refugees should be treated like Ukrainian refugees. Their welcoming showed that it actually is possible to treat people fleeing war properly,” he said.
Almohamad has received asylum in Denmark because he risked conscription in the Syrian military.
Nevertheless, the Danish government refused to renew his elderly parents’ residency in 2020, deeming the security situation in Damascus “significantly improved”.
They were finally granted asylum earlier this year following a media outcry and assistance from refugee organisations.
However, Denmark’s decision to revoke Syrians’ residency permits still affects hundreds of refugees who are being held indefinitely in deportation centres across the country.
“Denmark was the first country to sign the UN Refugee Convention, but they no longer respect it. It says refugees must be treated equally, no matter their ethnicity, religion or which country they flee from, but we are seeing the opposite today. We are being divided into first- and second-class refugees,” Almohamad said.
For the past 10 years, Denmark has received fewer asylum seekers than surrounding European countries. In 2021, Denmark ranked 20th of the 27 EU countries in receiving asylum seekers relative to population size.
Meanwhile, Sweden and Germany have received three to seven times as many asylum seekers per capita over the past five years, official figures show.
However, a recent study revealed that the majority of Danish voters across the political spectrum have highly exaggerated perceptions of immigration – many believing immigrants make up double the amount in the population, and that crime among young immigrants is six times more prevalent than it actually is.
This is quite symptomatic of the political climate in Denmark, said Aydin Soei, an author and sociologist specialising in marginalised minority youth, citizenship, and social mobility in Denmark.
Soei recalled how Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, just before calling the election, emphasised that many Danes feel unsafe and that there are parts of Copenhagen “where she would never dare go” – despite most studies showing that the Danish population feel increasingly safe and crime rates are decreasing.
“It is deeply frustrating that it has become politically mainstream to paint these bleak images in order to position oneself as a protector against ‘dangerous minorities’. Quite the opposite, youth crime is historically low and crime among ethnic minorities is declining”, Soei told Al Jazeera.
The sociologist pointed to Denmark’s controversial “ghetto plan” as another example – policies introduced by the previous right-wing governments but which are now being enforced by the Social Democrats who talk of “parallel societies” rather than “ghettos”.
The so-called “ghetto laws” aim to mass evict and reconstruct social housing in certain low-income immigrant neighbourhoods through criteria on employment, crime statistics, education levels, gross income, and controversially, the share of “non-Western” residents.
While many of the targeted areas have seen significant positive socioeconomic developments, changing Danish governments have kept tightening the criteria as a result depicting the so-called “ghettos” as a growing societal issue.
“It is a paradox. Things are going well in Denmark – more ethnic minorities are completing an education, and crime is historically low, but the politicians are not celebrating this development – they just want to pursue even tougher immigration policies,” Soei said.
“Unfortunately, we are witnessing a racialization of all aspects of legislation in Denmark. Legal politics, housing politics and even social politics have become synonymous with immigration politics. This is quite alarming,” Soei added.
‘Enough of them already’
With the consensus on immigration policies among the key political parties, anti-immigration sentiments have not been as central to this election campaign as in other recent Danish elections.
However, more far-right parties will appear on the ballot this year with newly-formed the Denmark Democrats, an anti-immigrant party led by Inger Støjberg, a former immigration minister who was impeached for unlawfully separating asylum-seeking couples. And with the right-wing parties competing for similar voters, they have made themselves heard.
Right-wing populist Danish People’s party recently released an advertising campaign under the slogan: “We have enough of them already,” sharing the names of selected new Danish citizens, mainly with “non-Western” sounding names.
The party also raised the idea of citizens being able to refuse home care from hijab-wearing women, while a candidate for the anti-immigration party New Right went even further and added homosexuals and Jewish people to the list.
The harsh political climate that has been especially rampant over the past 20 years has had dire consequences, according to associate professor of educational psychology Iram Khawaja.
In her work, she sees a relation between recurring experiences with discrimination and the dehumanisation of ethnic minorities and actual psychological, social and physical consequences.
“This ‘minority stress’ can, unfortunately, manifest into anxiety, depression, and even physical medical conditions. It is a never-ending story,” Khawaja said.
Along with about 300 other psychologists, Khawaja is a member of the Professional Psychology Network Against Discrimination, an organisation she co-founded after the country’s last national election, where Muslim minorities were especially targeted in political campaigns.
“I have interviewed many children and young adults, and 10 years ago many trusted that if they just finished their education and found work, they would be accepted by society, but now I sense greater hopelessness, which I think is because of the harmful political rhetoric this last decade,” Khawaja said.
A feeling Almohamad recognises.
“Sometimes all you need is a bit of recognition, but we are made to feel less worthy. I wish politicians would show more appreciation for refugees and our contributions to society, but when you listen to them on TV these days, you question whether it’s even worth trying”, he said.