The Italian "refugee island" of Lampedusa is in the firm grip of winter's tristesse. The tourists have left, the remaining refugees fight to be taken to the mainland. As a fire destroys the worn out ferry that connects the island to the mainland of Italy, the mayor, Giusi Nicolini, and local fishermen campaign for a new ship. When the refugees are finally transferred by plane, the fishermen occupy the port in protest. The island is isolated and as food supplies run out, the protesters start to argue.
The coastguard tries to prevent the tragedies of the upcoming season out on the sea, while many islanders try to describe the role of Lampedusa to the never-ending stream of reporters that stop by on the island. This tiny community at the edge of Europe is engaged in a desperate fight for dignity, and for solidarity with those who many consider the cause of the ongoing crisis: the African boat people.