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In conflict situations, rapid changes can occur in the conditions in both host and home countries. In the context of such uncertainty, how do refugees navigate the bureaucratic apparatus of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to obtain humanitarian aid and resettlement? We carried out fieldwork in 2019 in Lebanon and found the UNHCR’s bureaucracy to be a ‘black box’ for refugees in relation to the provision of information on humanitarian aid and resettlement. In this context of limited information, we found that rumours – widely considered to be uncertain truths – contributed to shaping participants’ understanding of the UNHCR’s decisions on the provision of aid and resettlement. In this article, we highlight the interpretive aspect of rumours and argue that refugees engage in interpretive labour as a result of the unequal relationship between themselves and the UNHCR’s opaque bureaucracy and provision of information. While refugees have to provide the UNHCR with detailed and highly personal information in interviews and household inspections, officers provide refugees with only generic responses, leading refugees to make their own interpretations of the bureaucratic decision-making processes. We conceptualise this interpretive labour as a collective process that contributes to generating rumours among refugee groups.

Original publication




Journal article


Taylor & Francis

Publication Date



42 (10)


2247 - 2264