In this essay, I focus on seemingly benign and innocuous civil sites, spaces and technologies – such as hotel rooms, demountables and shipping containers – and proceed to argue that, once these civil sites and technologies are situated within geopolitical relations of biopower, they become instrumental in the production of refugee trauma and death. I term the trauma and violence that refugees experience in the context of everyday civilian life ‘vernacular violence’. In the process of examining how hotel rooms and containers are instrumentalised by western governments into prisons, I question the line of demarcation between the civil and the penal. I argue that what is in fact operative is a type of biopolitical power predicated on the exercise of ‘civil penality’. In the latter part of the essay, I track the manner in which civil penality and vernacular violence inscribe, for refugees from the Global South, such technologies of civil transport as planes, ships and trucks. Situated within violently unequal relations of geopolitical power, these civil technologies of transport generate fundamentally disjunctive ontologies that interrogate the line of demarcation between ‘letting-die’ and ‘making-die’.