Climate Change Caused Gardi Sugdub Residents to Relocate

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Climate Change Caused Gardi Sugdub Residents to Relocate

The residents of Gardi Sugdub Island, home to the Indigenous Guna people, are the first group of people asked by their government to move to the mainland.

The Island of Garti Sugdub is the southernmost and largest of four populated Carti Islands, 1200 meters off the northern coast of mainland Panama. 

The sea, which indigenous inhabitants referred to as the Guna people, have relied on for centuries for their food and livelihood, is now threatening their existence as sea levels rise due to climate change.

CNN reports that after years of planning, 1000 Guna people have received keys to their new homes. Many have started relocating to newly built houses beginning in June 2024 in a new town called Isber Yala, which will host the first climate refugees in the region.

Still, several residents have also chosen to remain on their home island. Steven Paton, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s physical monitor program, says, “Within 40-80 years, depending on the height of the islands and rates of sea level rise – most, if not all of the inhabited islands, will be underwater”.

According to NBC News, about 300 families successfully relocated off the island of Gardi Sugdub in early June 2024, but 200 people chose to stay behind on the island. The article notes that the residents’ great concern for the rising sea levels made most of them relocate to the mainland.  The Panama government agreed to find them a new settlement that contained housing and necessary infrastructure like power lines, roads, cultural spaces, and playgrounds.

Requests to relocate from some Guna people are documented as a case study in the Human Rights Watch report: “The Sea is Eating the Land Below Our Homes”, published in July 2023.

The report, based on the stories of more than 40 Guna communities, discusses the many challenges they face on the island of Gardi Sugdub, which include overcrowding, unreliable fresh water supplies, high risk of diseases, and lack of septic or sewage system due to the island’s limited space.

Climate change further exacerbates these hazards, bringing in stronger storms and rising sea levels, which are beginning to lap at residents’ homes.  These challenges faced by the Guna people have led them to plan their relocation to the mainland as early as 2010 and seek support from their government to do so.

The report says that plans to relocate to the mainland are fraught with delays and broken promises from the government. The completion of houses that are small and designed for a family of four or five and the basic infrastructure has dragged on for years to complete. During the report’s writing, the site still lacks an adequate water supply for drinking, sanitation, and long-term sewage management and trash disposal plans. 

The report highlights the Panama government’s obligations to protect its people from foreseeable risks, including those from climate change. It also outlines recommendations to the government and international donors on relocating the Guna people. In addition to supporting residents who want to relocate, helping those who decide to remain on the island and continue their way of life is essential.

The report also forms the basis for Human Rights Watch’s submission to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.

The world’s refugees are growing

A report from the UNHCR published on 5 June 2024 estimates that more than 2.9 million refugees worldwide will need resettlement next year. The latest estimate marks an increase of 20 per cent – equivalent to half a million refugees – compared with 2024, driven by the prolongation of mass displacement situations, the emergence of new conflicts and the impacts of climate change.

According to the report, in 2023, 96,311 refugees were resettled by states with the support of UNHCR. This is a 65% increase compared with the year before and close to the target of 100,000 set out in a UNHCR 2030 Roadmap on Third Country Solutions.

However, this represents less than 5% of refugees who required resettlement in 2023. The USA, Canada, Germany, and Australia received the most significant UNHCR-facilitated resettlement departures during the year.

The UN Refugee Agency calls on States to redouble their efforts to ensure those who need resettlement the most have access to it. This includes more States engaging in resettlement and ensuring that programmes offer both predictability and agility to respond to urgent and emergency cases.


Ramirez, R., & Poces, E. (2024, June 8). Threatened by rising seas, the first of Panama’s Indigenous islander are forced to leave. CNN. Retrieved from

Kottke, J. (2024, June 9). Hundreds of Indigenous families complete relocation off Gardi Sugdub due to rising sea levels. NBC. Retrieved from

“The Sea is Eating the Land Below Our Homes” Indigenous Community Facing Lack of Space and Rising Seas Plans Relocation. (2023 July). Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from

UNHCR Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2025. UNHCR. Retrieved from

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