Three people are confirmed drowned and more deaths are feared after an asylum-seeker boat bound for Australia sank off West Java in Indonesia.

Australian media reported that the boat was carrying up to 170 people, mostly refugees from Sri Lanka and Iran, when it broke up and sank in heavy seas on Tuesday evening. 

Indonesian authorities said that they had found 157 people alive and four dead, and searches were ongoing on Wednesday for others. They said the passengers were from Iran, Sri Lanka and possibly Iraq.

"We don't know exactly how many were on board, so we're focusing on searching for any more that may be out there," Bandung search and rescue chief Rochmali told AFP early on Wednesday, adding the figure would likely be between 100 and 200.

"We will just focus on ensuring they're well and making sure no one else is still at sea," he said.

The Sydney Daily Telegraph, reporting from Java, said the engine of the boat started smoking and taking on water shortly after departure.

A man calling himself Soheil told the newspaper that he was the sole survivor of a group of 61 Iranians who set off from the fishing village of Cidaun.

Canberra's new asylum policy

Hundreds have drowned making the same journey to Australia. Only a few days ago four people died in a boat that sank off Christmas Island, Australia.

The latest disaster on Wednesday came just days after Canberra announced a hardline new plan to send all unauthorised arrivals to its shores to Papua New Guinea.

Asylum-seekers arriving in Australian waters will now be sent to the Manus Island processing centre in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific nation for assessment, with no cap on the number that can be transferred.

They will not have chance to settle in Australia and will only allowed to live in Papua New Guinea if their asylum claims are approved.

'Hollow and hypocritical'

Human rights groups have expressed outrage at Australia's decision.

The Refugee Council of Australia said on Tuesday that the arrangement would exacerbate the  region’s challenges with people movement by undermining efforts to improve refugee protection for those who most needed it.

Paul Power, the council's chief executive, said that Australia could not outsource its Refugee Convention responsibilities to a much poorer neighbour and remain credible in advocating that other nations improve protection standards for refugees.

"By unreasonably shifting its responsibilities for asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea through this Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA), Australia’s international advocacy for responsibility sharing has been exposed as hollow and hypocritical," Power said in a written statement.

“This arrangement is without precedent in the world. It cannot possibly be presented as an example of regional co-operation because it is little more than a wealthy country paying a much weaker neighbour to take on its international responsibilities to people seeking asylum.”

Source: Agencies