* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
As communities across the globe enjoy the festive season and ready to bring in 2017, a brutal winter is taking hold in Afghanistan where a new humanitarian crisis is quickly spiralling out of control.
There, on a once vacant plot of land in country’s east, seven canvas tents stand amid a mish mash of furniture, water containers and pots and pans. Gas cookers burn bright as dusk falls and chilly night air descends from the mountain tops.
This once derelict space is now home for Dawar Khan and his family, along with six other Afghan families who also can’t afford to live anywhere else.
For dinner they mostly eat bread and rice, and they’ve cut down to two meals per day until some find work – though employment prospects here are scant at best.
Dawar and his family are among almost 600,000 Afghans who have returned from Pakistan since July, with hundreds of thousands more set to make the journey next year. Pakistan has given all Afghan refugees until the end of March to get out.
Some move willingly; others say they have no choice, claiming to have faced intimidation from authorities in Pakistan. Dawar says he was jailed five times by police before he and his family eventually fled from the country in which his children were born.
But what’s almost universal is the fact these Afghans are returning to an unfamiliar country. Most haven’t been there for decades; they have no home, no formal documentation and very little money to live off.
Since the Soviet occupation in the late 1970s and 80s, millions of Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan. A large contingent were born there and have never been “home” until now.
Suddenly they find themselves forming part of a new and rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis that has aid agencies extremely worried.
The scale and speed of the exodus from Pakistan is hard to fathom – since July an average of more than 3,000 Afghans have left Pakistan each day.
As snow falls across much of Afghanistan and winter sets in, most returnees are choosing to stay in the more temperate province of Nangarhar – like Dawar and his family.
But this is putting huge pressure on health services and the supply of food and water. The provincial capital Jalalabad has been inundated; the city is at breaking point.
Making matters worse, Nangarhar is one of the most insecure and unstable of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. More than half its districts are either controlled or contested by armed opposition groups, and there are growing concerns the returnee crisis could fuel recruitment for these groups, making an already dire humanitarian situation even worse.
At the same time, Afghanistan is enduring one of its most violent years on record, according to the UN. More than half a million Afghans have already fled their homes since January because of fighting.
All this paints a bleak picture for a nation that has endured four decades of war, occupation and unrest, only to find it has a new and burgeoning humanitarian crisis on its doorstep.
Aid agencies are doing their best to meet the overwhelming needs in trying conditions. Save the Children is working in key returnee locations, providing cash distributions so families can buy food, water and warm clothes for winter.
We’re setting up special playgroups known as “child friendly spaces”, which provide children with a safe place to play, learn and recover from the distress they’ve endured. We’re also working to help returnee children get back into the classroom as quickly as possible, knowing how important education is in times of crisis.
But the task at hand is gargantuan, and far more support is needed from the international community – not only so families like Dawar’s can survive the winter, but to help them establish new lives in a strangely foreign land.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom, says Dawar, whose main aim is to find work and provide for his family. “If I’m not poor here I am happy because this is my country,” he says proudly.
In a turbulent world in which more than 65 million people are currently displaced, we owe Dawar and his fellow returnees the best opportunity possible of making a life in Afghanistan.
Ana Locsin is the Country Director of Save the Children in Afghanistan.