Oulu (Finland) (AFP) - In the remote, northern Finnish town of Oulu where he has lived for seven years, Syrian-born Jabo Waleed recently started feeling that some people's behaviour towards him was becoming less welcoming.
"My wife is Finnish, I have lots of Finnish friends, but if you walk alone in the streets or drive somewhere or go into a shop then people really do look at you differently," Waleed told AFP in fluent Finnish from behind the counter of his kebab shop in the town centre.
"I can honestly say it's not like before," he added.
Waleed's experiences have been echoed by many other immigrants across Finland, since police in Oulu announced in December the arrest of nine suspects -- all of whom had arrived in the EU country as refugees or asylum seekers -- for suspected sexual offences against minors. A handful of similar arrests followed in subsequent months.
The heavily publicised incidents spread outrage through Finland, and helped the far-right, populist Finns Party capitalise on anti-immigration sentiment ahead of Sunday's legislative elections.
The Finns Party's election manifesto, released after the arrests, goes into detail about a perceived security risk posed by immigrants, particularly in the areas of sexual assault and terrorism.
After three years as the fifth largest party in public opinion polls, pre-election forecasts put Finns Party support at around 16 percent, which could make it the second largest party after Sunday.
- Immigration to the fore -
Finland's population has the lowest share of foreign-born residents in western Europe, and the Nordic country was singled out by an EU study last year as having the highest rates of racially motivated violence and harassment against people of African descent out of 12 countries surveyed.
Until recently, immigration was a minor election issue, with concerns such as social care and climate change dominating the public debate.
However, the Finns Party, under the leadership of hardline MEP Jussi Halla-aho, has focused on migration since the alleged Oulu assaults.
This has prompted major parties on both the left and right to echo Halla-aho's calls for tougher measures on immigrants who commit crimes.
Finnish police have said around a quarter of last year's 1,400 reports of sexual assaults against children involved suspects of foreign backgrounds -- higher than the proportion of foreign-born people in the population, which is 6.6 percent.
"People are being raped, people are being killed. But the other parties are only interested in whether the Finns Party's support is going up," Halla-aho said at the time.
Tuomo Turja, research director of polling agency Taloustutkimus, says the Finns Party's opposition to immigration, plus their scepticism towards climate change, set them apart from the rest of the Finnish political field.
"The support base is mostly male, working class but also small business owners, they are relatively well off, middle income, they are situated in southern and western Finland, mostly in small towns and villages," he told AFP.
- Party split -
The Finns Party are no newcomers to the populist stage, having snatched a surprise third place in the 2011 general election under the larger-than-life leadership of Timo Soini, who campaigned against EU bailouts to Portugal and Greece.
Its popularity rattled European financial markets and helped galvanise anti-bailout sentiment elsewhere in the EU.
A further election success in 2015 saw the Finns Party join a centre-right coalition government. Faced with the realities of governing, concessions on the Greek bailout and on immigration proved fatal for the party's popularity.
Amid spiralling poll numbers, the party split and the hardline faction dropped out of government in 2017, when it elected Halla-aho as leader.
Under Halla-aho, and back in opposition, the party's message has taken a more nationalistic turn away from euroscepticism.
Halla-aho now intends to lead his party back to power.
"The message (of other parties) is 'don't vote for the Finns Party because there will be no government cooperation with them'," Halla-aho told national broadcaster Yle in February.
"I wouldn't give too much value to talk like that."
Finland's other parties have expressed distaste at the idea of joining a coalition with the Finns Party, though few have ruled cooperation out entirely, wary of the populists' record of outperforming expectations at the ballot box.
"It may not be that socially acceptable to say you vote for the Finns Party, so they may have these hidden supporters," pollster Turja said.
Back on the streets of Oulu, it proves hard to find anyone who says they will vote for the Finns Party.
Heikki Lehtovuori, a retired doctor who has yet to decide how to vote but knows it will not be the Finns Party, told AFP climate change would be his main concern in these elections, not migration.
"This Finnish way of thinking, which has got lots of publicity, is completely foreign to me. I'm sure the majority of people think the same as me, that other people need jobs here as well as just Finns," he said.