The standing ovation made her cry. “That was not fair,” said Pernille Vermund, 41, smiling as she dried her eyes with a tissue. The applause came from members of the recently established Danish right-wing party, The New Conservatives, at the party’s first Annual Meeting in November. Vermund, who is the leader and one of the two founders of the party, was about to give her first speech.
“In Denmark, we should not accept that our hospitality is being abused by criminal immigrants who scam, steal, rape and kill,” said Vermund, who was met with another round of applause.
Vermund’s statement illustrates the Danish political right-wing’s anti-immigrant rhetoric that have gained traction among the Danes the past two decades.
The New Conservatives want to send back immigrants who commit a crime, cut welfare benefits for immigrants, and stop asylum-seekers from entering Denmark. In September, the party reached the 20,000 signatures that are needed to run for the Danish parliament.
There is one group of immigrants that Pernille Vermund is most opposed to. She made this clear in her speech at the meeting:
“Islam is not good for democracy and freedom,” she said. “Experience shows that the more Islam fills in a society, the less room there is for democracy and freedom (…) Therefore, Islam should not have any influence on Denmark.”
The party’s policies resonate with Lizanne Diandra, 62, who is head of the sanitarian team in the Copenhagen Mall, Fisketorvet.
“Islam doesn’t belong in Denmark,” she said. “It bothers me every time I see one those black-headed gulls who doesn’t work, but receives social welfare from the state.”
Diandra is one of many Danish voters, who increasingly have supported anti-immigrant policies in recent years. She used to vote for the Danish People’s Party, known for their anti-immigrant policies. In the national election in 2015, the Danish People’s Party became the second largest party in parliament. But Diandra doesn’t believe that the party is using its power to implement tougher immigrant policies.
“Immigrants are still flooding over our borders,” she said. “I haven’t seen any constrains at all.”
Up until the 1960s, the immigration in Denmark primarily came from neighboring countries such as Sweden and Norway. In the 60s the Danish economy was booming, and Denmark needed to increase its labor force. So-called “guest workers” from the former Yugoslavia and Turkey entered the country to join Denmark’s labor force. Though the guest-workers were not supposed to permanently stay in the country, many of them did. At the time, Denmark had a liberal legislation on family reunification, which meant that many of these workers could also be joined by their family members.
Due to global conflicts in the 80s, the number of asylum-seekers increased dramatically; from 800 in 1983 to 9,300 in 1986. Not everyone obtained asylum but the number of asylum seekers increased because of the family reunion legislation. This meant that that the number of immigrants more than doubled between 1991 and 2001 and there were now 262,700 immigrants living in Denmark.
The change in numbers were reflected in the voters’ political agenda. In 1984, 4 percent of the voters thought immigration was the most important problem for the politicians to focus on. By 2001, this had increased to 41 percent of polled voters. As unemployment increased in Denmark during the 90s, so did the amount of immigrants who were receiving social welfare because they could not find a job. In 2001, the Danish People’s Party became popular because they were the first party to address the issue and this changed the public debate and rhetoric.
“The debate has been radicalized,” said Jørgen Goul Andersen, professor of political science at Aalborg University. “Things you would not even say in the privacy of your own home, you are now saying happily out loud in the public debate.”
Alaa Mourad, 25, immigrated to Denmark from Iraq with her parents in 1999. She has experienced how the atmosphere has become more aggressive towards immigrants.
“It’s very scary,” she said. “It’s not because you have to be political correct all the time, but it’s like there’s no limits for how rude, you can be.”
Mourad thinks the media play an important role in the polarized debate.
“The media should focus more on the average immigrant rather than just focusing on the extremes – either those that commit crimes or those who are the pillars of society,” she said.
According to recent polls, The New Conservatives are likely to get seats in parliament in the next election. Voters like Lizanne Diandra have no doubt in where they will cast their next vote.
“I’ve been working hard my whole life,” she said. “I haven’t paid my taxes so all these immigrants can come and benefit from that.”