Australia will begin sending home Afghan asylum seekers, after the United Nations reported that ethnic groups are not being persecuted in Afghanistan. The announcement comes as several Afghans who were denied visas into Australia have returned to Kabul.

The Australian government hopes the 36 Afghans who flew out of Indonesia bound for Kabul a few days ago will be the start of a mass return of refugees.

The group went home under a voluntary repatriation program run by the International Organization for Migration. Many had tried unsuccessfully to sneak into Australia by boat from Indonesia. They have returned home after receiving assurances from the United Nations that it is safe to do so.

One of those returning is 37-year-old Abdul Razi, whose boat capsized during the treacherous crossing from Indonesia to Australia. A doctor, he plans to return to his old job, working for a U.N. medical program in Kabul.

He expects a peaceful government in Afghanistan. He says the country needs people to come home and work hard, and that the refugees need their homeland.

More volunteers could be flown home from Indonesia in the coming weeks. They may be joined by others forcibly repatriated by Australia. Authorities in Canberra say the process will begin 'soon' but wouldn't give specifics.

The decision could affect up to 3,500 Afghan asylum seekers in Australia. Many of them are in immigration detention camps, and their claims for asylum have been rejected. Others are still waiting for their applications to be processed.

Australia detains all asylum seekers who arrive without authorization until their applications are processed, which can take two or three years. In February, the government said it was considering giving financial assistance to Afghan asylum seekers who would return home voluntarily.

About 1.2 million refugees fled Afghanistan to escape the brutal Islamic Taliban regime in the past five years. About half have returned home since the regime fell late last year during the U.S. lead war on terrorism.