Court to hear arguments in challenge to Ten Commandments display

China - A handicapped monk in his 30s is among the few Tibetans who made their way past Chinese border guards to reach a reception centre for new arrivals at Dharamsala this week.

Now the monk, called Guru by his fellow refugees, sits and waits to meet the Dalai Lama, the desire of every new arrival. He has taken a vow of silence, say the others; something that would not have been possible back in Tibet.

"He came alone, crawling by his hands day and night, with barely any sleep or food. It took him a month to cross the mountains," claims one of the refugees.

There was a time when thousands managed the journey every year, lured by the prospect of religious freedom and a chance to glimpse their spiritual leader. Between 2004 and 2007, about 12,000 refugees arrived.

But following a crackdown by the Chinese after an uprising in 2008, an average of just 50 people a month now make the journey across snow-capped mountains, first to Nepal and then on to India.

"China has put a lot of pressure on Nepal to act against Tibetans escaping across the border and hundreds get deported each month and then are tortured by Chinese police," said Mingyur Youdo, deputy director of the US-funded reception centre. "The recent news of suppression inside Tibet and the series of self-immolations is enough evidence for the world to know that after 2008, Tibetans are constantly watched and denied human rights."

International Campaign for Tibet, a non-governmental organisation, said: "As Nepal-China relations develop, Tibetan refugees in Nepal face increasing dangers both on the journey into exile and within the long-standing Tibetan community in Kathmandu."

A 15-year-old young girl was among those who reached Dharamsala. Jugsangkyi, from Kham province, made it here on her second attempt, leaving her family behind in Tibet. On her first attempt she was captured and placed in jail in the city of Shigaste.

Despite the dangers, she tried again, paying a Nepali guide 20,000 Yuan (£2,000) to help her get to Nepal. "I have always been told there is nothing left inside Tibet," she said. "I would be with no education and future. The situation inside Tibet is very tense and Chinese police are always watching us."

Barry Sautman, a Tibet expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said there may be other reasons for the decline in new arrivals.

"Another factor may be the growing off-farm economic opportunities for Tibetans and, since 2008, an intensification of 'aid Tibet' measures [introduced by the government] that directly enhance the incomes of Tibetan individuals and families," he said. "An increasing number of Tibetans are migrating not to India but to mainly Han Chinese areas; indeed, in Chengdu there are now about 50,000 Tibetans – more Tibetans than in Dharamsala."

But refugees who make it to Dharamsala say many more want to follow. Karma Ngidung Guyamtso, a 36-year-old monk from a monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, left Tibet two weeks ago.

"There are many factors for Tibetans to come to India – modern traditional education, political freedom, monastic education and to see our Dalai Lama," he said. "Many are trying to go into exile, but it's a matter of chance.

"If everyone gets this chance to go into exile, then Tibetans will rush to see the Dalai Lama and fight for the cause and go back only when Tibet attains freedom."